Trump Faces Uphill Climb In Pledge To Eliminate Agencies

Mar 16, 2017
Originally published on March 16, 2017 9:35 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

President Trump's budget blueprint calls for zeroing out government funding for 19 independent agencies and dozens of other programs. That isn't the administration's only effort to downsize and reorganize the government. Earlier this week, Trump signed an executive order. NPR White House Correspondent Tamara Keith has more on that.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: For President Trump, signing the order on a comprehensive plan for reorganizing the executive branch was likely the easy part.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This executive order is another major step toward making the federal government efficient, effective and accountable to the people.

KEITH: The order calls for the White House budget director over the next year to develop a plan for improving government efficiency that could include eliminating, quote, "unnecessary agencies, components of agencies and agency programs." This order has some speculating it may be part of Trump adviser Steve Bannon's mission to dismantle the administrative state. Though Trump is hardly the first president to call for streamlining the government.

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BILL CLINTON: We intend to redesign, to reinvent, to reinvigorate the entire national government.

KEITH: That's former President Bill Clinton back in March of 1993. Presidents have been launching commissions and issuing orders to reduce redundancy in government for more than a century. President Ronald Reagan came in promising to eliminate two cabinet departments, starting with Energy.

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RONALD REAGAN: There's only one way to shrink the size and cost of big government, and that is by eliminating agencies that are not needed and are getting in the way of a solution.

KEITH: NPR reported on the effort led by Reagan Energy Secretary James Edwards.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And after his department is dismantled, where does Energy Secretary Edwards plan to be?

JAMES EDWARDS: Fishing down on the beaches of South Carolina in June or July.

KEITH: But come summer, the Energy Department was still around, as it is now some 35 years later. The obstacle - Congress. Chris Edwards, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute says a major question for Trump's effort will be how much political capital the president has to spare, and that will likely depend on whether Congress has passed a health care bill and his yet-to-be-unveiled tax cut plan.

CHRIS EDWARDS: If they have and Trump's plate is sort of more open, he may have - he may really put the effort in to make some of these cuts happen.

KEITH: Now, one advantage Trump has that Ronald Reagan didn't have is that his party controls both the House and the Senate, but it may not be that big of an advantage. In 1995, the GOP took control of Congress and promised to eliminate multiple agencies.

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SAM BROWNBACK: Today we're announcing the creation of...

KEITH: Then freshman Congressman Sam Brownback led the charge.

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BROWNBACK: ...And develop plans for the elimination of four federal bureaucracies - the Agencies of Commerce, Education, Energy and HUD, Housing and Urban Development.

KEITH: They started with Commerce.

KRISTINE SIMMONS: It involved 11 committees.

KEITH: Kristine Simmons is with the Partnership for Public Service and was a Hill staffer at the time. It took months, but the bill made it through all those committees and passed the House. Simmons says it stalled in the Senate, where an Alaska Republican objected to what it would mean for his state.

SIMMONS: So you have individual members that take particular interest in specific components. And any one of those could prove a stumbling block.

KEITH: Every agency program and function has a constituency. Still, everyone I interviewed for this story saw potential in Trump's executive order if handled well. For John Hudak of the Brookings Institution, that means truly focusing on efficiency.

JOHN HUDAK: And not simply to cut agencies and activities that you disagree with ideologically.

KEITH: Trump's executive order calls for public input as plans for cuts are developed. And once any proposals go to Congress, those concerned will no doubt weigh in with lawmakers, too. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.