WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is asking Congress for expanded power to streamline the tangle of agencies he oversees, a move he says would bring the federal government into the modern world.
Standing Friday in the White House East Room before a group of small business owners, Obama said the move would save money and modernize a bureaucracy that hasn't been updated since 1984.
"No business or nonprofit leader would allow this kind of duplication or unnecessary complexity in their operations," Obama said. "You wouldn't do it when you're thinking about your businesses. So why is it OK for our government? It's not. It has to change."
Obama noted that there are five different entities that oversee housing and more than a dozen involved in food safety. He repeated his favorite example, which he mentioned in last year's State of the Union address: the Interior Department oversees salmon in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in saltwater.
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Obama said his first stab at consolidation would be to merge six business and trade agencies — including the Commerce Department, the Small Business Administration and the U.S. Trade Representative — into one. As part of that move, Obama announced he would elevate the Small Business Administration to Cabinet level.
The election-year proposal comes as Republican presidential candidates accuse Obama of expanding the size and scope of government and gives the incumbent an opportunity to cast himself as an advocate for smaller, leaner government. It could put congressional Republicans — who have long decried big government — in a tight spot. They greeted the proposal with skepticism — noting that Obama has called for government reorganization before without actually pursuing it — but pledged to give his proposal a look.
"After presiding over one of the largest expansions of government in history, and a year after raising the issue in his last State of the Union, it's interesting to see the president finally acknowledge that Washington is out of control," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"We hope the president isn't simply proposing new packaging for the same burdensome approach," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. However, he added, "Eliminating duplicative programs and making the federal government more simple, streamlined and business-friendly is always an idea worth exploring."
Paul Light, a New York University professor who specializes in government reform, called Obama's approach promising, but he said it's unlikely that Congress — which helped create the maze of agencies and departments — would cede him the authority he seeks.
"People don't like to give up turf," Light said. "This all begins in Congress, which likes the duplication and overlap of regulations and agencies. It gives members lots of things to brag about when they get home."
The authority to consolidate agencies was first granted during the Great Depression as a way for the president to respond to the "immediate challenges" of the crisis, Obama said. It was last held by Ronald Reagan, and he and every president since have tried to regain it, Light said.
Light suggested there was a political factor for Obama, who cast the move as a potential job creator before the small business audience. But Light said the move would save money.
"If you condense the 12 or whatever agencies down, assuming they've got 20 percent overhead, you're going to save money," Light said. "It's also about good citizen service, making it easier for the average American to navigate their government."
Obama has signaled his intention to campaign against congressional Republicans, whom he says oppose nearly all his initiatives, and he challenged Republicans Friday to support what he said should be a bipartisan initiative.
"With or without Congress, I'm going to keep at it, but it'd be a lot easier if Congress helped," he said. "This is an area that should receive bipartisan support, because making our government more responsive and strategic and leaner, it shouldn't be a partisan issue."
White House officials said the administration talked with business leaders and government employees to draft the plan, which Obama said would require that any changes reduce the number of agencies or save taxpayer dollars.
If the authority were granted, Congress would be required to hold an up-or-down vote on the president's plan — without making any changes to it — within 90 days of its submission.
Jeffrey Zients, Obama's point man on the initiative, said the fast-track authority is needed to avoid having the measure getting "bogged down" by amendments and opposition from "special interests."
But the measure drew scrutiny even from groups that have been largely supportive of Obama. The Natural Resources Defense Council said it was "extremely troubled" by the plan to move the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from the Commerce Department to the Interior Department as part of the administration's first reorganization effort.
The move, council president Frances Beinecke said, "could erode" NOAA's capabilities and mute its voice.
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