The Interior Department would take over part of the Army Corps of Engineers’ civil works program under a wildly ambitious federal government reorganization plan proposed by the Trump administration today.
The plan also would merge the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries within Interior, among many other proposals.
"By merging agencies that handle similar, if not the same, functions we would be able to greatly improve services to the American people and better protect the land and wildlife under our care," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said.
Months in the drafting, the energy and environmental ideas presented by the White House Office of Management and Budget are only part of a larger reorganization scheme that includes merging the Labor and Education departments and moving food stamps from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Health and Human Services.
"This effort, along with the recent executive orders on federal unions, are the biggest pieces so far of our plan to drain the swamp. The federal government is bloated, opaque, bureaucratic and inefficient," said OMB Director Mick Mulvaney.
Administration officials bill the plan as an exercise in good government. Skeptics call it far-fetched, the latest in a decadeslong series of reorganization proposals that sound good on paper but face big-time resistance from Capitol Hill, bureaucracies and regulated industries.
Congress, for one, would have to find the time and political space for a massive administrative undertaking amid the competing priorities and impediments of an election year. Regulated industries tend to grow comfortable with their overseers. President Trump would have to stay focused.
"For the administration’s reorganization plans to succeed, the president and members of his administration must articulate a governmentwide vision for reform, the rationale for each proposal, and how the administration will implement changes and measure progress," Partnership for Public Service President and CEO Max Stier cautioned today.
The Government Accountability Office underscored the point in a 2009 report, noting that "policymakers over the last four decades made several unsuccessful attempts to reorganize the nation’s land and resource agencies," among others.
"These proposals, however, were unsuccessful for a number of reasons, including political resistance to the specific changes and shifting government priorities," GAO noted.
The still-relevant 2009 GAO study came in response to lawmakers potentially interested in moving the Forest Service back to Interior, from which the agency had been pulled by Congress in 1905 (Greenwire, June 7).
Bureaucratically, USDA has consistently resisted surrendering control of the Forest Service, whose approximately 34,000 employees number more than any other branch of the department. The Trump proposal does not resurrect the old idea of folding the Forest Service into Interior.
The Trump plan
The new proposal would:
- Move NOAA Fisheries from the Commerce Department to merge with FWS at Interior.
Administration officials said it would make sense to combine the agencies as a way to end the confusion over who’s in charge of implementing the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Critics have long complained that the agencies oftentimes have overlapping jurisdictions, leading to unnecessary bureaucracy.
- Move the Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works division out of the Defense Department and into the departments of Transportation and the Interior. The move is meant "to consolidate and align the Corps’ civil works missions with these agencies."
The Army Corps has a broad domestic portfolio that includes wetland permitting, management of inland waterways and reservoirs, flood control and responses to natural disasters.
The proposal would move the corps’ navigation management to the Department of Transportation, which "would place a single federal agency in charge of supporting maritime transportation investments."
The rest of the corps’ missions would be moved to Interior.
- Merge the Department of Energy’s applied energy offices on renewables, nuclear and fossil energy into one "Office of Energy Innovation."
Elements of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which currently is a separate program funded at $353 million, would be moved into the new innovation office.
The White House also wants to create a parallel Office of Energy Resources and Economic Strategy to deliver "solutions that support U.S. energy dominance in access to resources and infrastructure." The Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response would be maintained.
Fold Interior and USDA hazardous material programs into EPA’s Superfund program. That should allow EPA to more easily clean up waste sites on federal land, while Interior and USDA can keep their reclamation programs for other sites, the proposal said.
Trump’s plan also would have EPA streamline and reduce its oversight of state regulators to focus on "national consistency" and provide technical assistance to states. In addition, the agency would assess using owned office space versus leasing for its field operations and review management of its laboratories.
The new governmentwide reorganization proposal is separate from Zinke’s plan to shuffle his department by redrawing regional maps and moving personnel and possibly an agency’s headquarters out of Washington, D.C. (Greenwire, May 23).
A similarly ambitious governmentwide reorganization proposal crashed and burned in 1949, underscoring the difficulties ahead.
The so-called Hoover Commission proposed many moves, including taking the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management and commercial fish operations out of Interior and moving the Army Corps of Engineers’ flood control and rivers-and-harbors work in. The idea died.
Formally called the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government, the group was composed of esteemed individuals and experts outside of government. The Trump plan, by contrast, was drafted by the White House’s own OMB.
Neither the Energy Department nor EPA existed at the time of the 1949 Hoover Commission’s set of proposals.
"The White House … must get congressional buy-in and bipartisan support, make substantial, upfront investments, and plan for sustained attention over many years," Stier said.
Reporters Kevin Bogardus, Rob Hotakainen, Ariel Wittenberg, Christa Marshall, Sam Mintz and Kellie Lunney contributed.