MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It, a proposal to merge two massive federal agencies.
NICK EICHER, HOST: President Trump signed an executive order in March 2017 to create a plan to overhaul the federal government. The task fell to OMB, the Office of Management and Budget. It took more than a year, but late last month, the administration unveiled its “Reform and Reorganization Plan.”
REICHARD: Amid a slew of big proposals, one stood out: combining the departments of Education and Labor into a new agency. It would be called the Department of Education and the Workforce. Here to tell us more about the plan is WORLD Radio’s Leigh Jones.
LEIGH JONES: On June 21st, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney opened what he dubbed the “drain the swamp” cabinet meeting at the White House. On the agenda: a massive overhaul of the federal government.
Mulvaney began his presentation with camera shutters clicking in the background. He promised to do what he could to make it “not boring, Mr. President.” He started with a little history lesson.
MULVANEY: When we got into this, one of the things we learned is that it has been almost 100 years since anybody really reorganized the government at this type of scale… which means we’re about 20 percent into the 21st century, but we’re still dealing with a government that is from the early 20th century. This leads, Mr. President, to some bizarre results.
Mulvaney went on to detail overlapping bureaucracies and competing oversight responsibilities. Think cheese pizzas regulated by the FDA and pepperoni pizzas regulated by the USDA. To fix that, Mulvaney proposed merging food safety regulators into one department.
But one proposal stood out above the rest: merge the Education and Labor Departments. Mulvaney said the two agencies have more than 40 workforce training programs.
MULVANEY: They’re doing the same thing. They’re trying to get people ready for the workforce. Sometimes that’s education, sometimes that’s vocational training, but they’re all doing the same thing, so why not put them in the same place?
Sounds reasonable enough, but a merger would be anything but simple. Mulvaney’s proposal quickly ran aground in Congress—which would have to approve any agency restructuring.
The week after the cabinet meeting, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on the plan. Margaret Weichert, Mulvaney’s deputy director, took the hot seat and tried to set a positive tone.
WEICHERT: A transformation of this scope will take time to implement. Some changes can be applied directly within agencies, while other, more complex proposals may require action by the president or Congress.
But political realities quickly took over. Republicans love the plan. Democrats hate it. Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland—the committee’s top Democrat—harped on the likely loss of federal jobs.
CUMMINGS: Whenever folk wanna get extra money for something, or they need something, they go after federal employees, and it concerns me greatly.
Other critics say the merger would put too much emphasis on workforce training, minimizing the importance of education in general.
Republican Virginia Foxx of North Carolina applauded the benefit to students and workers.
FOXX: As I said when the reorganization was announced, the federal government is long overdue for a serious overhaul. The proposal to merge the departments of Education and Labor is recognition of the clear relationship between education policy at every level and the needs of the growing American workforce.
Rick Hess is an education policy analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. He believes the Education-Labor merger has potential but little chance of ever becoming reality. That’s partly because some lawmakers would have to give up influence.
HESS: So if you’re a member of Congress and you’re working on a labor bill, you frequently are trying to create a signature program or make a signature change. And somebody else on an education subcommittee is trying to create a signature program or make a signature change. And over the decades, what you wind up with is a whole lot of overlapping, competing, parallel program construction.
That helps to explain how the Education and Labor departments came to employ almost 20,000 people combined.
Even without Mulvaney’s restructuring plan, the Department of Education has streamlined its operations already. Cutting staff by 13 percent has saved taxpayers $40 or $50 million. That’s what the administration should have highlighted, Hess says.
HESS: Frankly it seems to me that if the White House is serious about its agenda, it would spend more time explaining why this kind of downsizing is sensible than coming up with ambitious press releases that aren’t going to go anywhere. So, yeah, when I look at this, it seems much more about a dramatic looking for the opportunity to issue a dramatic statement about something rather than doing the hard work of governing.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Leigh Jones.