President Obama has just announced new plans for goverment reorganization that seek to create a new consolidated agency that focuses on helping business compete. My first reaction is Hallelujah! It’s not like this is a new idea—I can remember debating this approach with colleauges back when I was a young Hill staffer in the 1980s. But, for now it’s better late than never.
The details of the plan envision a newly consolidated agency that combines business and trade elements of the Department of Commerce, the Small Business Administration, the US Trade Representative, the Ex-Im Bank, and other agencies. Because all the details are not yet in, it’s too early to give a full assessment. But, I can offer a few issues and potential roadblocks to consider as the plan moves forward:
1) What’s the Objective? Obama’s statement hits all the right buttons—this merger seeks to improve responsiveness to business. I hope that’s true, but there’s also the motivation (from some) that this effort will save tons of money. I hope that this expectation is quickly jettisoned. After all, how much have we saved by consolidating agencies into the Department of Homeland Security? If the merger leads to better services, that’s great. But, don’t do it if it’s primarily about budget cutting. If savings do arise, that’s an added bonus. The bottom line needs to be a more effective operating structure.
2) Beware of Congress: It’s not like agency leaders don’t understand the benefits of better collaboration and consolidation, but they don’t control the agenda. Congress does. The consolidation is going to affect the jurisdications of numerous Congressional committees–especially the House and Senate Small Business Committees—so don’t expect a smooth reaction on Capitol Hill.
3) Mission Conflicts? While all of the targeted agencies serve business, they don’t all have the same perspective on business. The trade-related agencies have a different view than the SBA or some Commerce Department agencies, such as the Economic Development Administration or the Bureau of Industry and Security. These latter agencies have a much stronger commitment to supporting domestic production and domestic job creation. In contrast, many of the trade agencies tend to take a more laissez-faire view of global trade issues. Within this agency, we are likely to see conflicts and debates similar to those that now occur between the Departments of Commerce, State and Defense. Spirited debate is not necessarily a bad thing–but don’t expect one single voice out of the new agency.
All in all, this proposal has promise. But, as usual, the devil will be in the details.