WASHINGTON — Seeking more power to shrink the government, President Barack Obama on Friday suggested smashing six economic agencies into one, an election-year idea intended to halt bureaucratic nightmares and force Republicans to back him on one of their own favorite issues.
“The government we have is not the government we need,” Obama told business owners he’d gathered at the White House. Lawmakers seemed willing to at least consider his ideas.
Sounding like a manager of a disorganized company, and looking like one by pointing to slides as he spoke, Obama asked Congress to give him a kind of reorganization power no president has had since Ronald Reagan. It would guarantee Obama a vote, within 90 days, on any idea he offers to consolidate agencies, provided it saves money and cuts the government.
His first potential target: Merging six major trade and commerce agencies into a one-stop-shopping department for American businesses. The Commerce Department would be among those that would cease to exist.
Attacking senseless duplication across the executive branch he runs, Obama said: “Why is it OK for our government? It’s not. It has to change.”
Politically, Obama is seeking advantage on the turf often owned by Republicans: Smaller government.
He is attempting to directly counter Republican arguments that he has presided over the kind of regulation, spending and debt that can undermine the economy — a dominant theme of this year’s debate and one often cited by his potential re-election rival, Republican Mitt Romney.
Obama said he would use his expanded authority to recommend the collapsing of other agencies across the government, not just in the business field, without getting specific. Congress would keep the final say over any proposal. But fast-track power would give Obama a stronger hand to skip much of the outside lobbying and turf battles and get right to a vote.
Congressional reaction was mixed, but generally followed a pattern from both parties — support for making government more efficient, and wariness about how Obama’s plan could upend the trade American trade agenda or undermine the prerogatives of Congress.
Republicans skeptically pointed to Obama’s past promises as the size of the nation’s debt keeps growing.
“It’s not often that we see real proposals from this administration to make government smaller,” said Rep. Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “I look forward to reviewing the proposal and hope that it will be the first of many to unravel the red tape.”
Indeed, Obama promised more plans to shrink things if given more power, citing inefficiencies all across the government.
In an unusual united front that underscored some bipartisan skepticism, the chairmen of two of Congress’ most powerful committees joined in a statement that questioned the president’s desire to wrap the U.S. Trade Representative office into a new agency. The House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont, said government cannot be reduced “at the expense of programs that are helping businesses, ranchers and farmers create jobs.”
For Obama, it was all about common sense.
He spoke of business people who deal with the government as part of their daily life and are exasperated by a maze of agencies, permits and websites.
“We can do this better,” he told them. “So much of the argument out there all the time is up in 40,000 feet, these abstract arguments about who’s conservative or who’s liberal. ...You guys are just trying to figure out, how do we make things work? How do we apply common sense? And that’s what this is about.”