Obama payroll growing

Obama Payroll Growing

The Washington rap on President Obama is that he's humorless, but that's unfair. He may not be Jay Leno funny, but his bit Friday on reforming and reducing government was great.

There he was in the East Room, explaining that "the government we have is not the government we need." That's for sure, and Mr. Obama even added the Gingrichian theme that "We live in a 21st-century economy, but we've still got a government organized for the 20th century. Our economy has fundamentally changed—as has the world—but our government, our agencies, has not."

Alas, the President wasn't talking about modernizing Medicare or the entitlement state. He merely wants Congress to give him more power to reorganize the government. He says he wants his team to scrub down the executive branch looking for waste, duplication and bureaucratic complexity, and then to fast-track their proposals to Congress for an up-or-down vote within 90 days.

Mr. Obama's first targets for such "consolidation authority" are the six agencies related to business and the world economy, from the Commerce Department to the Export-Import Bank to the U.S. Trade Representative. Maybe the White House chose to start there because, with an eye on the GOP campaign, Rick Perry wants to eliminate Commerce and a few other cabinet departments he can't remember.

Another way of putting it is that this new emphasis on streamlining the bureaucracy is Mr. Obama's version of the Texas Governor's "Oops." Having presided over the largest expansion of government since LBJ—health care, financial reregulation, spending 24% of GDP, the surge of industrial policy—Mr. Obama's pollsters must be saying that voters have the jimmy-legs about bigger government and that he thus can't run only as a Great Society man.

But let's go to the videotape. One measure of government size is the federal work force, measured by the White House budget office as civilian full-time equivalent employees, excluding the military and Post Office. The executive branch had about 1.875 million workers in 2008 when the financial crisis hit, a number that held relatively constant throughout the post-9/11 Bush Administration. That number climbed to 2.128 million two years later under the 111th Congress—or growth of 13.5%. That's the largest government since 1992, when the Clinton Administration began to slash defense spending.

This jobs boom is projected to decline slightly this year, to 2.116 million public employees, and the Administration says the Commerce unwind will take it down by another 1,000 or so. Yet even that would come through attrition, which usually means the competent people leave when they've had it with the lifers.

Proposals for government reorganization are the elevator music of politics, always present but never leaving much of an impression. Newt Gingrich says he's running in part to apply Lean Six Sigma best practices to the bureaucracy. Al Gore famously drew up a scheme for "reinventing government" in the late 1990s. He abandoned it after the airline unions revolted amid his attempt to reinvent the Federal Aviation Administration.

Joe Rago on President Obama's proposal to merge agencies within the Commerce Department.

Reshuffling agencies rarely works because what's important in government isn't where the bureaucrats sit but their mindset. The incentives are for inertia, turf protection and blame-shifting—unless change is imposed from the top. Mr. Obama has made it clear with his priorities over three years that his preference is for the government status quo, only more of it.

But Mr. Obama is now at least bowing to the principle of smaller government, and our advice to Congress is to weigh his proposals and extract some concessions to see if the President means what he says.

A major concern is the office of the U.S. trade rep, which Mr. Obama wants to subsume within the Commerce monolith. But the trade rep office is one of the best in government precisely because it is small, reports to the White House, and is focused on the single mission of trade expansion. As part of Commerce it may be drowned out by protectionist voices.

Another priority ought to be reforming the 47 separate job retraining programs, all but three of which overlap. The Government Accountability Office calls this wasteful with "no measurable benefit," but the White House has rebuffed any meaningful change.

This is a President who last year promised a review of all regulations while riding the greatest rule-making wave in American history. Now he's calling for leaner government without mentioning ObamaCare and Dodd-Frank, which create so many new boards and commissions that government auditors (literally) can't even count them. We suspect many in the White House were laughing themselves when they came up with this one.


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