Clarifying the power of federal agencies could offer Trump a lasting legacy

Clarifying the power of federal agencies could offer Trump a lasting legacy

In this age of unbridled administrative overreach, it is a rare thing for the executive branch to be willing to slim itself down. Yet on June 21, President TrumpDonald John TrumpArizona GOP Senate candidate defends bus tour with far-right activist Alyssa Milano protests Kavanaugh in 'Handmaid's Tale' costume Bomb in deadly Yemen school bus attack was manufactured by US firm: report MORE released a report inviting Congress to help clean the administrative state’s house. Instead of bracing for the political backlash that often follows White House action, Congress needs to take advantage of this unique opportunity to reassert its authority over an unruly executive. 

“The Federal Government is a maze of Federal agencies with overlapping services and missions.” This statement came not from President Trump, but from his predecessor — Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHarriet Tubman on the bill would be smart for the president, his party and the nation The US must not turn its back on refugees Gorka calls Trump's comments on Mexican immigrants ‘fake news’  MORE. According to the 2018 Federal Register Index, over 370 federal agencies make up America’s administrative labyrinth. From the Administration on Aging to the Workers Compensation Programs Office, each of these organized bodies holds jurisdiction over countless aspects of Americans’ lives. Many of these agencies are obscure, duplicative — or both.

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All are federally funded, and many lack any sense of congressional oversight other than the loose threats of defunding that would surface if Congress completed a normal appropriations process. Indeed, there has been little to no serious accountability for the majority of these agencies throughout their existence.

 

From an institutional perspective, the executive branch could be doing more for the American people — and it could be doing it better. Back in March, President Trump signed Executive Order 13781 directing the Office of Management and Budget to “propose a plan to reorganize government functions and eliminate unnecessary agencies.” On Thursday, the OMB obliged. 

The report’s proposals, which includes over 30 substantive recommendations, ushers in a new administrative methodology — one that modernizes agency program structure to match the lifestyles and needs of today’s citizen. If the proposals materialize, they will improve both the efficiency and the accountability of the executive branch.  

One of the report’s major proposals would merge the Department of Education with the Department of Labor to create  the Department on Education and the Workforce. In this new form, the programs under the two legacy agencies would be adapted to meet the needs of the modern student, ensuring that his or her interaction with federal programs — from receiving federal student aid through participation in workforce development training — is consistent and effective.

Another proposal would detangle the jurisdictions of the Federal Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture over food safety. Currently, a simplified rule of thumb is that meat, poultry and eggs are under the jurisdiction of the USDA, while all other food products fall under the FDA. Under this proposal, the USDA would reclaim regulatory authority over food quality from the farm to the marketplace, and the FDA's jurisdiction would return to its namesake.

A third proposal would consolidate all non-commodity nutrition assistance programs to be solely organized and administered through the Department of Health and Human Services (which will be renamed the Department of Health and Public Welfare). By having a ‘one-stop shop’ for these programs, individuals will have access to better information regarding their assistance options and more streamlined service throughout their aid experience.

Today’s congressional capacity to hold the executive branch accountable is virtually nonexistent. We simply cannot rely upon the appropriations process or committee oversight alone to ensure agency effectiveness or efficiency.

The administration’s March directive initiated a long-overdue introspective investigation of agency purpose, and Thursday’s report follows through with recommendations. Where congressional authorization and oversight of agencies have fallen short, these proposals represent a clear shot across the bow indicating that this administration is serious about increasing executive branch efficiency. There could not be a more direct invitation for the House and Senate to prove they are serious about responsible spending of taxpayers’ dollars, cutting red tape and injecting some common sense back into the administrative state.

There are many legacies this administration is likely to leave behind. But, if acted on, these recommendations may be of greatest benefit to America’s long-term institutional health. In a time when congressionally fostered accountability is lacking, this administration is signaling that it will not only help Congress in reigning in agency mission-creep, it will provide the roadmap. This is both a call for celebration and a call for members of Congress to step up to the plate.

Aubrey Neal is federal affairs manager of the American Institutions Network and a policy analyst for the R Street Institute.