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How to Reorganize the Government Without Congress

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How to Reorganize the Government Without Congress

March 20, 2017

As well as releasing his budget, President Trump recently signed an executive order to make the executive branch more efficient. In signing the order, he said “Today there is duplication and redundancy everywhere. Billions and billions of dollars are being wasted.”

So far the budget has overshadowed the executive order. But the two work together. The reorganization plan complements the budget by enabling the administration to reduce waste without waiting for Congress.

The order requires each agency to submit a proposal to improve efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability within 180 days. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney will then invite comments from the public for improving the plans. One hundred and eighty days after the comment period, Mulvaney will submit a proposal with recommendations to eliminate unnecessary agencies and programs, together with a list of the required legislative or administrative measures.

We know that Congress moves slowly on presidential budgets. This plan could help bring about meaningful reforms, although a reorganization effort that incorporated Congress could achieve more. This executive order could help achieve budgetary savings while making government more efficient. The goal of making the government less wasteful is not a new one. President Taft formed the Commission on Economy and Efficiency to examine some of these same problems over a century ago. Some later administrations undertook similar endeavors to make the government less wasteful, with different degrees of success. Other administrations showed little appetite for these reorganization efforts, and the scope of government inefficiency grew. This effort could succeed where others failed because President Trump, a former businessman, is clearly committed to reform, more so than many of his predecessors. In addition, the Government Accountability Office has recently produced annual reports with suggestions for reducing waste. Some of these proposals give a sense of the type of actions agencies could propose.

From 2011 to 2015, GAO presented more than 200 areas and 544 actions to reduce redundancy and improve efficiency. The most recent report added 92 new actions in 37 different areas. These recommendations are not confined to one area or sphere of government, from Department of Defense to the IRS. An executive order encompassing the entirety of the executive branch is important for this reason. Every agency has areas where it could improve. Out of the actions the GAO identified from 2011 to 2015, 41 percent had been "fully addressed," but many of these actions were from 2013 or earlier.

As the GAO report notes, change takes a long time. For illustration, only 13 percent of the new 2015 actions had been fully addressed by the time the next report came out, according to the GAO. A comprehensive examination of the entire executive branch could identify more opportunities and lead to more action. Even before the executive order, efforts undertaken by Congress and executive branch agencies have led to $56 billion in benefits from 2010 through 2015. The GAO estimates $69 billion more in through 2025. The reorganization sparked by the order could deliver even more. Savings of this size will not solve the country’s long-term fiscal problems. They could relieve some fiscal pressure while reducing inefficiencies. Addressing agencies’ poor management would be a matter of better contracting or coordination. For example, the federal government spends roughly $1.2 billion each year on 1.5 million mobile devices and associated services. According to the GAO, the federal government could have saved almost $400 million from 2013 to 2015 by consolidating or eliminating mobile device contracts. The majority of agencies were not even able to measure the effectiveness of their system. Smaller reforms such as this could produce some savings, but they will not address questions about the purpose of programs or the structure of executive branch agencies.

The executive order touches on these issues. It tasks agency heads to determine whether some functions could be spun off to states or private parties. Here relying on agency heads might not yield results as impressive as an effort that better incorporated Congress or other independent agencies. It might be difficult for them to conceive of some functions being more effectively administered by another agency, or the private sector because that would reduce bureaucrats’ power.

President Trump’s executive order could deliver real savings and make government more efficient without waiting for Congress to act on his budget. This executive order is an important signal that the federal government’s status quo will be re-examined with a critical eye.

Charles Hughes is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on twitter @CharlesHHughes. 

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