White House considers merging education, labor departments

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President Donald Trump doesn’t want to solve the immigration crisis, writes. Jesse Jackson. He wants to use it as a cudgel in the November elections. | AP Photo/Evan Vucci

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration proposed a major reorganization of the federal government on Thursday, calling for merging the education and labor departments, moving the federal food stamp program to the Department of Health and Human Services and renaming that agency. The plan represented the latest aspiration of a presidential administration to revamp a sprawling federal government.

Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, told The Associated Press in an interview that the effort is part of President Donald Trump’s “drain the swamp’ agenda” and was aimed at streamlining a long list of overlapping regulations and department functions.

The sweeping reorganization proposal, which was formally unveiled during the president’s Cabinet meeting Thursday, is the result of an order signed by Trump in March 2017 calling for a review of the federal government aimed at identifying redundancies and streamlining agencies. It’s the latest in a long line of federal government overhaul proposals announced by administrations from both parties.

Mulvaney pointed to the fact that there are currently more than 40 job training programs spread across 16 different Cabinet agencies — just one of a list of examples he cited.

“If it’s cheese pizza, it’s FDA, but you put pepperoni on it and it becomes a USDA product. I mean, come on?” he said. “An open-faced roast beef sandwich is USDA, a closed-faced roast beef sandwich is FDA. Not making this up. You can’t make this kind of stuff up. This would only happen in the government.”

Among the specific proposals outlined is a plan to merge the departments of education and labor into a single Department of Education and the Workforce, or DEW. The combined agency would oversee programs for students and workers, ranging from education and developing skills to workplace protections and retirement security.

The plan would also create a single food safety agency under the Agriculture Department and move the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, from the USDA to Health and Human Services, which would be renamed the Department of Health and Public Welfare and be refocused more broadly on public assistance programs.

Housing programs run by the USDA would also move to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and certain functions of the Army Corps of Engineers would be moved to the departments of transportation and interior.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s policy function would be moved into the Executive Office of the President, while background checks would move over to the Department of Defense.

Mulvaney said the plan was “not designed as a cost-saving” or as “a way to reduce the size of government” but said: “If efficiency drives you there, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Soon after he took office, Trump charged the Office of Management and Budget with coming up with a plan to reorganize the government and eliminate unnecessary agencies, pointing to redundancy and billions of dollars being wasted

“We will develop a detailed plan to make the federal government work better, reorganizing, consolidating and eliminating where necessary,” Trump said last year after signing an executive order on the reorganization. “In other words, making the federal government more efficient and very, very cost productive.”

But whether the proposal will prove effective is unclear.

Many of the changes would require approval from Congress and congressional leaders have been hesitant to adopt a plan that would eliminate federal agencies they are charged with overseeing.

Even before the plan was announced, it was met with skepticism among lawmakers and labor unions. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said members of both parties in Congress had pushed back against Trump’s proposals “to drastically gut investments in education, health care and workers — and he should expect the same result for this latest attempt to make government work worse for the people it serves.”

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, a union representing 1.7 million teachers and education professionals, said under normal circumstances combining the education and labor departments might make sense as a way of bringing together education and workforce development programs.

“But there is nothing normal about this administration, so we’re extremely skeptical of the motivations here, given how hostile (Education Secretary) Betsy DeVos and President Trump have been to public education, workers and unions,” Weingarten said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which helps oversee the two departments that would be merged under the plan, said he was open to the changes. “I think it’s always wise to look for greater efficiency in how our government operates and will study the proposal carefully,” Alexander said.

Eliminating the Education Department has long been a goal of Republicans. President Ronald Reagan, for example, sought to eliminate the department during the 1980s but backed down amid a lack of support in Congress.

And former Vice President Al Gore famously appeared on David Letterman’s late-night show and held up an ash tray to demonstrate overlapping government functions.

“People are used to thinking nothing can change, but the American people are really upset with the way it operates now, it doesn’t work, it’s extremely wasteful,” Gore said then. “There’s bipartisan support for getting rid of all these wasteful procedures, cutting the wasteful spending and putting in a new approach that will make it work better and cost less.”

OMB’s deputy director for management, Margaret Weichert, said the effort was focused on cases where agencies “are overlapping in responsibility, have fragmented responsibilities, where the customer service element is dispersed across agencies.”

She cited the issue of endangered fish species like salmon, which she said is under the purview of different departments depending on where they’re swimming, and poultry farmers dealing with different regulations for chickens and eggs.

“We’re not at the beginning of the 21st century, we’re 20 years in. But we don’t have a government that meets the needs of the 21st century,” he said.

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