OMB gives more details on agency consolidation plan

Tuesday - 1/31/2012, 8:20pm EST

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President Barack Obama will send Congress a bill in the coming weeks to reinstate the President's authority to consolidate agencies, said Lisa Brown, director of the government reform for competitiveness and innovation initiative at the Office of Management and Budget.

The bill would require proposals to "reduce the number of agencies or save costs," she said. "That's new. It's always been in the ether around reorganizations but never a requirement."

Brown offered more details about the consolidation plan at a forum Tuesday on improving performance through efficiency.

In addition, the bill would limit Congress' ability to tweak the proposal. Brown likened it to the up-or-down vote that Congress has on trade agreements and Base Realignment and Closure plans.

Brown acknowledged that would be a challenge.

Absent a crisis such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or the energy crisis that gave birth to the Energy Department, "It is really, really hard to do any sort of reorganization," she said. "That's for obvious reasons in terms of the number of vested interests, whether it is a committee on the Hill who cares about a particular program, constituents or lobbyists."

Congress stripped the President of the ability to consolidate agencies in 1984. Submitting the bill is the first of Obama's two-part strategy to chip away at the "siloed nature of government," she said.

'Whole-of-government' approach

If Congress passes the bill, the White House will fill in the details of a plan the President announced in January to create a new department culled from business- and trade-related services at six agencies, including the Commerce Department and the Small Business Administration.

Brown said the plan stems from hundreds of interviews with stakeholders. Small businesses, she said, complained about navigating "a maze" of government services and sometimes missing out on programs designed for them.

Some of that, she added, stems from overlap among agencies.

"This is how government has developed over the years and, in many cases, quite naturally. There's an issue. There's a problem. You create a program. You house it at a particular agency," she said.

But unlike businesses, government does not step back to consider how to merge similar programs, she said. That's to the detriment of the six agencies that would be consolidated, she said.

"You could talk about dealing with a China issue or trying to meet the President's goal of doubling exports by 2015," she said. "Every agency would do the best it could with the tools that it had, but there wasn't an effective whole-of-government approach to some of the problems, especially in the trade domain."

That has hurt trade enforcement and promotion in particular, she said.

But Obama's proposal has raised eyebrows among critics, who have questioned whether folding the small U.S. Trade Representative into a larger agency would diminish the country's ability to negotiate trade deals.

The two lawmakers in charge of overseeing trade issues, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) issued a statement earlier this month, suggesting the move could "hurt American exports and hinder American job creation."

They called the current U.S. Trade Representative "nimble, lean and effective."

Brown said trade would be one of four "arms" of the department, with the others being small business, innovation, and statistics.

In terms of trade, she said, the new agency would "ensure that as we've just finished negotiating trade agreements, we're able to enforce trade, promote business abroad and respond quickly and deftly to issues as they arise."

But she cautioned that the plan is now just a "framework."

If Congress revives the President's consolidation power, the White House would solicit agencies' opinions "to make sure that we get the specific proposal right and we implement it effectively," Brown said.

That would entail "making sure you think through how you do it in a way that is respectful of agencies now and creates a very clear plan of transitioning to the new entity," she added.

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