WASHINGTON — President Trump launched an ambitious effort to reorganize the federal government Monday, signing an executive order that he said would "make it less wasteful and more productive."
Like many of Trump's executive orders, the order sets a high-level policy but leaves the details to be determined. Titled "Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch," the directive gives Trump's budget director one year to come up with proposals for the president and Congress to "eliminate unnecessary agencies."
“We have assembled one of the greatest cabinets in history," Trump said in signing the executive order following his first Cabinet meeting. "And we want to empower them to make their agencies as lean and effective as possible and they know how to do it. Today there is duplication and redundancy everywhere. Billions and billions of dollars are being wasted."
Trump's executive order will require departments and agencies to identify wasteful spending, duplicative programs and potential improvements to government services. "This is the beginning of a long overdue reorganization of the federal government," said White House press secretary Sean Spicer. "Sometimes you just walk into an agency and you realize that agency's mission is no longer relevant or that it's duplicative in three other agencies. Or that there are too many people performing a function that no longer exists for a variety of reasons."
The order directs Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to seek public input from both federal agencies and the public. One factor: whether a government program is better left to state and local governments or the private sector. Mulvaney's report will be due in one year.
The initiative complements a law passed in 2010 to require an annual accounting of wasteful and duplicative government spending. That law, passed by Congress as a condition of raising the debt limit, has saved taxpayers $56 billion in the first five years, according to the Government Accountability Office.
But the president has little power to reorganize executive agencies on his own, so Trump's reorganization plan will need support from Congress to be implemented.
"Every president since Roosevelt — every one, every single one — has done a study of how to fix government," said Paul Light, a New York University professor and author of A Government Ill Executed. "Presidents can dream the big dream. They can have studies. President Trump won't be the first to have one, and he wouldn’t be the first to be disappointed in it."
The problem, Light said, is that the structure of Congress — with its fractured and sprawling system of committees and subcommittees — encourages the same sort of organization in the executive branch. "It’s not like these agencies are breeding and creating new agencies. Congress has to authorize them," he said. "A lot of the disorganization flows down Pennsylvania Avenue, not up."
But some government waste watchdogs are more optimistic. "Yes, it’s happened before. I think this plan is different from the other plans because in the past, the agency heads were not asked to submit this plan by themselves," said Thomas Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste, which was established in the aftermath of an ultimately unsuccessful executive order by President Ronald Reagan in 1982.
"Prior presidents have not had as their cabinet secretaries individuals who have managed large, complex organizations," he said. "The disrupters have returned to Washington."