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Consolidate or Eliminate?

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In his 2011 state of the union address, Barack Obama promised to create a leaner, more efficient federal bureaucracy. In his recent 2012 address, the president reiterated his grandiose plan to reorganize the federal government:

In the coming months, my administration will develop a proposal to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America. I will submit that proposal to Congress for a vote — and we will push to get it passed.

Back on January 13, the president delivered remarks on government reform in the East Room of the White House. There he unveiled his plan to combine six major operations of the government that focus on business and trade in order to “consolidate the redundancies that currently exist, to cut waste, and eliminate duplication.” Said the president, “The government we have is not the government we need.”

According to the Government Reorganization Fact Sheet issued by the White House,

The President’s first focus under the Consolidation Authority Act would be to make it easier for America’s small businesses — which are America’s job creators — to compete, export and grow.

Currently, there are six major departments and agencies that focus primarily on business and trade in the federal government. The six are: U.S. Department of Commerce’s core business and trade functions, the Small Business Administration, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.

This is redundant and inefficient. Small businesses often face a maze of agencies when looking for even the most basic answers to the most basic questions. There is a whole host of websites, toll-free numbers and customer service centers that at times offer them differing advice. The result is a system that is not working for our small businesses.

The President is proposing to consolidate those six departments and agencies into one Department with one website, one phone number and one mission — helping American businesses succeed.

No name has been proposed yet for the new department, but a new website, BusinessUSA, will function as “a virtual one-stop shop with information for small businesses and businesses of all size [sic] that want to begin or increase exporting.”

According to the Washington Post, the proposed reorganization would also affect elements of the departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Interior, Labor, and Treasury. Also included in the consolidation is the relocating of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from the Commerce Department to the Interior Department.

That upset the union that represents the 4,000 NOAA workers who compile weather data because it goes against “the original intent of the weather service which Franklin D. Roosevelt moved from the Agriculture Department to the Commerce Department in recognition of the burgeoning aviation industry and the need to provide accurate, timely weather forecasts.”

The president’s reorganization plan has also come under bipartisan fire from Congress. A joint statement from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) questioned whether the legislation would hamper the government’s ability “to aggressively open new markets to American-made goods and services and create U.S. jobs.”

Although the overhaul of the Commerce Department alone is supposed to save about $3 billion over ten years, the insignificance of that number becomes immediately apparent when we see that the announcement of Obama’s consolidation plan came a day after he notified Congress of his intent to raise the national debt ceiling by $1.2 trillion right now.

Let’s take a brief look at the six major departments and agencies of the federal government that focus primarily on business and trade.

The Commerce Department, which dates back to 1903 and split from the Labor Department in 1913, oversees many facets of domestic and foreign business. It has a budget of $7.6 billion and about 47,000 employees.

The Export-Import Bank, created in 1934, helps to finance the export of U.S. goods and services. It has a budget of $89.9 million and about 391 employees.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, created in 1963, develops and coordinates international trade policy and advises the president on trade issues. It has a budget of $51.3 million and about 227 employees.

The Overseas Private Investment Corporation, created in 1971, helps U.S. businesses establish a presence overseas. It has a budget of $54.9 million and about 215 employees.

The Small Business Administration, created in 1963, helps small business owners with financing and training. It has a budget of $919 million and about 2,000 employees.

The Trade and Development Agency, created in 1992, provides grants to open emerging markets for increased exports of U.S.-manufactured goods. It has a budget of $50 million and about 50 employees.

Aside from the Commerce Department and the Small Business Administration, which some Americans might have heard of, the vast majority of Americans have certainly never heard of the Export-Import Bank, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, or the Trade and Development Agency. Just as the vast majority of Americans have certainly never heard of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, the American Battle Monuments Commission, or the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Now, we have had consolidations and reorganizations in the U.S. government before. The departments of Labor and Commerce were originally the Department of Commerce and Labor. The Department of Defense was formed in 1945 by combining the War Department and the Navy Department and adding the Air Force, formerly the Army Air Forces. In 1979 the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare became the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education.

But the problem with these six departments and agencies that the president wants to consolidate is that they exist in the first place. It is simply not the role of government to help businesses do anything. It is not a legitimate function of government to oversee many facets of domestic and foreign business, help finance the export of U.S. goods and services, develop and coordinate international trade policy, help U.S. businesses establish a presence overseas, help small business owners with financing and training, or provide grants to open emerging markets.

But neither should the federal government hinder businesses in any way. If the federal government really wanted to serve “the goal of a more competitive America,” “make it easier for America’s small businesses to compete, export and grow,” help “American businesses succeed,” and “open new markets to American-made goods and services and create U.S. jobs,” then it needs to get off the back of businesses, get out of the way, and stay out of the way. Let capitalism be laissez-faire capitalism; let the free market really be free. No government rules, regulations, and requirements that stifle businesses. No Americans with Disabilities Act. No Family and Medical Leave Act. No Fair Labor Standards Act. No minimum-wage laws. No unemployment programs.

Not only should there not exist in the U.S. government a Commerce Department, Small Business Administration, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Export-Import Bank, Overseas Private Investment Corporation, or U.S. Trade and Development Agency, but neither should there be a Department of Labor, Department of Agriculture, National Labor Relations Board, Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Trade Commission, Federal Communications Commission, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Federal Aviation Administration, or Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And because the government should have nothing whatsoever to do with business and trade, Obama’s six departments and agencies shouldn’t be consolidated; they should be eliminated.

I would be remiss if I did not point out the abject failure of Republicans — who talk a good talk about limited government — to do anything to reduce the size and scope of government when they were in power. Republicans went from talking about eliminating the Department of Education in the early 1980s to doubling its budget under George W. Bush and a Republican-controlled Congress. And then Republicans consolidated and reorganized the government to create the monstrous Department of Homeland Security.

In introducing his consolidation plan, Obama traced the inclusion of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Commerce Department to Richard Nixon’s being angry at his Interior secretary for criticizing his handling of the Vietnam War. Obama noted that the result was that freshwater salmon were regulated by the Interior Department and saltwater salmon were regulated by the Commerce Department. It turned out that he was wrong, but even so, instead of consolidating departments and agencies, a better remedy would be to eliminate departments and agencies, since the federal government should be regulating neither freshwater nor saltwater salmon in the first place.

And because the government should have nothing whatsoever to do with business and trade, Obama’s six departments and agencies shouldn’t be consolidated; they should be eliminated.

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