Late Friday night, President Obama and Congressional leaders came to an agreement on the federal budget. Thanks to the deal, national parks, monuments, and government offices all over the nation will be kept open.
Both the White House and Congress struggled to create a bipartisan budget that would seriously tackle the nation’s burgeoning debt problems since the global financial crisis gave birth to a new age of austerity.
According to a recent Time magazine exposé on Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, some suggested austerity measures include $6.2 trillion in cuts to the federal budget over the next ten years. Ryan’s plan would drastically alter the way Medicaid and Medicare work. It would repeal President Obama’s landmark healthcare reform legislation. It would also extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy while failing to raise new tax revenue. Finally, Ryan’s plan would reduce funding for college Pell grants.
While many acknowledge that Congressman Ryan’s plan is unrealistic (Time contributor Fareed Zakaria says that Ryan simply makes magical assumptions about growth, tax revenue, and spending), it does reinforce the need for a serious discussion on the reduction of federal spending.
In a special “roundtable” discussion, eight authors and bloggers at Foreign Policy online suggested a number of government programs and agencies that should be shrunk, merged with other agencies, or shut down entirely.
Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, urges skepticism about proposals and analyses generated by the CIA, because the nation’s top intelligence agency has cost the U.S. trillions in unnecessary defense spending.
Thomas Ricks, with the Center for a New American Security, argues that the defense establishment should be slashed, including the closure of West Point, the Air Force Academy, and the elimination of 25% of all defense contractors.
The list goes on.
None of these authors, however, points out that there are 15 federal departments within the executive branch. President George Washington only appointed 4 people to his cabinet: a secretary of state, a secretary of war, a secretary of the treasury, and an attorney general.
Of course times have changed, and the country faces a host of new challenges. But is it really necessary to have 15 federal executive departments (and 5 other offices and departments within President Obama’s cabinet)?
Perhaps key departments should be merged to eliminate redundancy and to reduce the amount of money spent on the large staffs required to operate each of these departments. Moreover, the merger of key departments will also make it easier for a single cabinet secretary and his or her staff to eliminate redundant programs within the executive branch.
Among the Foreign Policy authors, there was near consensus on tackling the massive waste of the military-industrial complex.
The Department of Homeland Security was the executive department most recently created. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, this new department was organized to promote the safety and security of the nation.
But that seems a little redundant, doesn’t it? After all, the U.S. already has a Department of Defense. The nation’s policymakers should seriously consider the elimination of the Department of Homeland Security. It’s still less than 10 years old, so there may still be time to eliminate this bureaucratic behemoth before it becomes so entrenched in government that it’s elimination is impossible.
Given the redundancies of Homeland Security and Defense, the best course of action would be to merge these departments. The resultant Department of National Security would require a smaller budget than the other two combined (think one cabinet secretary instead of two).
Politicians that actually propose this measure may be afraid of being labeled unpatriotic. Or they may be afraid of being labeled as bad on national security in their next elections. The truth is, however, that a more nimble, more efficient Department of National Security could make the nation much safer than its predecessors.
One of the Foreign Policy writers, Andrew Exum, also with the Center for a New American Security, suggests something similar. He argues that the Department of Veterans Affairs be furloughed. Before he’s attacked, however, he makes a compelling case. Veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam are passing away. As the population of veterans decreases, the smaller group of veterans from Somalia, Iraq, and so on, could be more easily taken care of by creating a VA program for the 21st century. This program, suggests Exum, could be more like an HMO that allows veterans to get quality care in the nation’s private healthcare system. Of course, responsibility for administering this program could easily be relegated to the Department of National Defense.
Four of the nation’s federal executive departments are all tied to economic development. So, perhaps, the Departments of Commerce, Labor, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development could be rolled into a single Department of Economic Development. One could even make an argument that the Treasury be rolled into this new department, though the nation may be better served if it were not.
Politically speaking, special interest groups would likely move to block such a measure. Unions would likely be opposed to the abolition of the Department of Labor, while women and African Americans might rally against the elimination of Housing and Urban Development.
What our nation’s lobbyists, special interest groups, policymakers and politicians must remember though is that the programs and goals of these departments will still exist. Offices within the new Department of Economic Development can still advocate for the nation’s citizens. These redundant departments will just be brought under the single umbrella of economic development.
Said simply, the U.S. doesn’t need a separate executive department to represent each individual constituency group.
The same can be said for the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency (itself a cabinet level agency, though not technically a federal executive department).
Environmentalists and Farmers alike will unite in opposition to the merger of these four departments! However, a single Department of Natural Resources would likely be far more nimble, efficient, and capable of handling the necessary cost-cutting measures necessary to help reduce the budget. For instance, the Secretary of Natural Resources could be tasked with cutting farm subsidies that amount to corporate welfare.
Finally, the Departments of Education, and Health and Human Services were once part of a consolidated entity, the aptly named Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Former President Richard Nixon once suggested that a revised version of Health, Education, and Welfare be established. Though one could easily make a case for an independent department of education, it would be worth exploring Nixon’s proposal. The reconsolidation of the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, after all, would make for a good Department of Human Resources.
…And suddenly, 15 federal executive departments and one major federal agency become 7 federal executive departments.
So, maybe in 2013, President Obama should consider reducing the size of his cabinet, by only hiring a Secretary of Economic Development, a Secretary of National Security, a Secretary of Natural Resources, a Secretary of Human Resources, a Secretary of the Treasury, a Secretary of State, and an Attorney General.
Tea Partiers, Republicans, and Democrats could all get behind this proposal. It reduces the size of the federal government, and federal spending, while still protecting key programs, by more efficiently eliminating waste and redundancy than any austerity measures could ever hope to accomplish.
Ultimately, this would not be entirely unprecedented either. Policymakers in the state of Missouri, for instance, are interested in merging the state's Departments of Education and Higher Education in an effort to save money.