President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House, Thursday, June 21, 2018, in Washington. From left, Deputy Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Trump seeks federal government overhaul, merger of agencies

June 21, 2018 - 6:00 pm
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Taking aim at the sprawling federal bureaucracy, President Donald Trump's administration released a detailed proposal Thursday to reorganize a number of federal agencies and merge the Education and Labor departments. The latest in a long string of attempts to rein in the government, the plan met with instant skepticism and faced long odds in Congress.

Trump teed up his budget director to present highlights of the plan with an acknowledgement that the topic can make eyes glaze over: "Would the media like to hear Mick Mulvaney's report, or would you find it extraordinarily boring and therefore not fit for camera?" Trump teased to reporters at a Cabinet meeting.

Undeterred, Mulvaney jumped right in, styling the document as a "drain the swamp" plan meant to control Washington's bureaucracy on a grand scale and saying past presidents' efforts had failed for lack of follow-through.

Mulvaney said the plan would modernize the federal government through consolidations and reorganizations not seen since the days of President Franklin Roosevelt. "We're almost 20 percent into the 21st century but we're still dealing with a government that is from the early 20th century," Mulvaney said.

The budget chief offered several examples underscoring the byzantine nature of federal regulations.

Mulvaney told the president that a salmon swimming in the ocean is regulated by the Commerce Department, but once it swims upriver it's overseen by the Interior Department. And if it uses a fish ladder, that's governed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "This is stupid, this makes no sense," Mulvaney said.

That brought to mind President Barack Obama's 2011 State of the Union address, in which he pointed to the different regulatory agencies overseeing salmon, whether the fish is swimming in fresh water or salt water. "And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked," Obama said at the time.

When the Clinton administration sought to "reinvent" the government in the 1990s, Vice President Al Gore famously donned safety glasses on David Letterman's late-night show as he smashed an ash tray with a hammer to demonstrate cumbersome government regulations.

Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University, said various reorganization plans have been hashed and rehashed for decades but have ultimately failed because of stubborn resistance in Congress.

"You're not just asking members of Congress to reorganize agencies, you're asking them to reorganize the appropriations process and give up their subcommittee positions," Light said. "There's not a single member of Congress ready to give up those authorities."

"You can put these pieces together in many ways," Light said. "But that doesn't make them work any better."

The latest plan was met with skepticism among lawmakers, too. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said members of both parties had pushed back against Trump's proposals "to drastically gut investments in education, health care and workers — and he should expect the same result for this latest attempt to make government work worse for the people it serves."

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which oversees the two departments that would be merged under the plan, said he was open to changes. "I think it's always wise to look for greater efficiency in how our government operates and will study the proposal carefully," he said.

The proposal stems from an order signed by Trump in March 2017 calling for a review of the federal government aimed at identifying redundancies and streamlining agencies.

Among the specific proposals outlined is a plan to merge the departments of Education and Labor into a single Department of Education and the Workforce, or DEW. The combined agency would oversee programs for students and workers, ranging from education and developing skills to workplace protections and retirement security.

It would also create a single food safety agency under the Agriculture Department and move the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, from the USDA to Health and Human Services, which would be renamed the Department of Health and Public Welfare and be refocused more broadly on public assistance programs.

OMB did not offer a specific timeline for which it would seek the various changes but said it would work with Congress.

Trump is the latest Republican president to try to streamline the role of the Education Department, which was created during President Jimmy Carter's administration. President Ronald Reagan sought to eliminate the department during the 1980s but backed down amid a lack of support in Congress.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, a union representing 1.7 million teachers and education professionals, said under normal circumstances combining the education and labor departments might make sense as a way of bringing together education and workforce development programs.

"But there is nothing normal about this administration, so we're extremely skeptical of the motivations here, given how hostile (Education Secretary) Betsy DeVos and President Trump have been to public education, workers and unions," Weingarten said.

Light, meanwhile, said he hoped the plan might mark the end of fish tales when a president seeks to refit the government.

"I've heard this salmon story so many times, it made me stop eating salmon," Light said. "It's been recycled by one administration after another. It's the poster child of this movement. But I'm telling you every salmon that is swimming up that river is ultimately going to Congress."

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Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.

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