Trump’s Plan to Reorganize the Government Is a Road to Nowhere

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Donald Trump is apparently moving ahead with a plan for a major government reorganization. I have no idea whether it’s a good or bad plan on the merits, but I can say one thing either way: Don’t do it, Mr. President!

Trump is hardly the first president who has wanted to shuffle and rationalize an unwieldy collection of departments and agencies. It’s easy to see the appeal: The modern government grew higgledy-piggledy, usually in response to some crisis and even more often in response to particular, more-or-less-random congressional alignments of influence. Anyone designing the whole thing from scratch would never have done it this way.

And yet? Even if any potential gains in efficiency would outweigh the transition costs, a large-scale reorganization is almost certainly politically untenable. 

Presidency scholar Andrew Rudalevige explained why in a Monkey Cage post back when this reorganization plan first emerged. As he says, “the executive branch’s fragmentation is mirrored by the array of congressional committees and subcommittees — and to change the former is to jeopardize the jurisdictions of the latter. Since committee assignments are often sought as a means of helping channel resources to constituencies, that kind of change is normally fiercely resisted.”

I’ll add another reason these schemes usually go nowhere: There’s no constituency for them. As Rudalevige notes, it’s easy for a president to generate applause lines from streamlining efforts. But interest groups are apt to be wary of change for change’s sake, and those interest groups that are happy with the status quo are likely to push hard to keep things the way they like them. And whether they say they approve or not, it’s impossible to imagine grass-roots voters getting excited enough about bureaucratic reorganization to light up the switchboards in congressional offices. So reorganization will produce at best an indifferent majority supporting it and intense minorities opposing it — exactly the kind of situation in which the American system is designed to produce gridlock. 

What’s not clear from the reporting I’ve seen is whether this is Trump’s idea or if someone else sold him on it. Either way, he’s better off forgetting about it … at least for now. It’s not especially likely to pass at any point, but it’s at least possible to imagine government reorganization as something a bipartisan group of politicians could land on if they’re looking for something to accomplish despite extreme partisanship: Should Democrats gain a House (or Senate) majority in November, legislation may prove impossible over a large range of substantive policy areas.

As long as Trump continues to govern as a mainstream conservative, compromise is going to prove difficult. So while procedural reforms may be impossible, at least there would be some reason to give them a try. That would assume Republicans aren’t just attempting reorganization in order to slash programs they don’t like and fund those they do support. And a compromise would also be impossible if Democrats are just trying to do the same thing. Even if that’s not the case, the obstacles would still be steep, and any payoff tiny. But it might have a chance.

1. At the Monkey Cage, John Sides speaks with Jane Schacter about the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

2. Also at the Monkey Cage: Eric McGhee on California’s top-two system

3. Dan Hopkins on the news media and the increasing nationalization of U.S. politics

4. Rick Hasen reports on a wacky attempt to expand the size of the House of Representatives. (The idea of a larger House isn’t wacky, although I’m against it — but this lawsuit sure seems to be.)

5. Good one from Nate Silver on how the parties are mostly controlling their nominations this year. 

6. Bloomberg’s David Ingold and Allison McCartney have the data on women running for Congress in this year’s primary elections.

7. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Kara Alaimo on the balkanization of television. I’m not sure whether she’s correct about political implications, but I certainly do miss our shared TV heritage. 

8. And Christopher Ingraham on the demise, and the persistence, of Confederate symbols

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