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Obama to ask Congress for power to combine agencies

He would do away with the Department of Commerce to shrink bureaucracy, but Republicans may be wary of giving him the authority he seeks.

January 14, 2012|By Christi Parsons, Los Angeles Times
  • President Obama unveils a plan to eliminate the Department of Commerce and spread its core functions among other agencies.
President Obama unveils a plan to eliminate the Department of Commerce… (Haraz N. Ghanbari, Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — President Obama is asking Congress for fast-track authority to shrink the federal government, creating an election-year talking point even if House Republicans reject his request.

Obama's plan — to do away with the Department of Commerce and combine its core functions with five other agencies — is designed to cut costs and make it easier for American businesses to deal with the government, administration officials said.

Under his blueprint, Commerce would be merged with the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Trade Representative's office, the U.S. Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corp. and the Trade and Development Agency. The new, as yet unnamed agency would have its own secretary and another Cabinet-level member from the trade office.

First, though, the president wants Congress to grant him the authority to expedite such an overhaul, as well as future ones. That means reorganization plans would be subject to simple up-or-down votes, and they couldn't be amended. Such authority expired during President Reagan's administration.

It's hardly a given that Congress would grant Obama expedited authority. But simply proposing it gives Obama a point to talk up on the campaign trail, one that might be even more valuable if opposed by Republicans.

Republican leaders Friday expressed support for streamlining the government, noting their own efforts.

But they are wary of the details and concerned about proposals Obama might come up with down the road. Democrats are worried about what a Republican president might do with the power.

Downsizing the government is a hot topic among Republican presidential candidates, some of whom have vowed to eliminate agencies. With the issue bound to come up in the general election campaign, Obama is emphasizing his efforts to reduce bureaucracy.

"This is an area that should receive bipartisan support, because making our government more responsive and strategic and leaner — it shouldn't be a partisan issue," Obama said Friday.

Republicans didn't disagree, exactly.

"Given the president's record of growing government, we're interested to learn whether this proposal represents actual relief for American businesses or just the appearance of it," said Brendan Buck, press secretary for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

President Hoover first won the power to quickly streamline government, subject to a congressional veto. The Obama plan would tweak past practice by proposing that fast-tracking be allowed only when the changes would save taxpayers money. Congress would have 90 days to vote on the president's reorganization plan.

"Congress has indicated that streamlining the federal government is exactly what they want to do, and this seems consistent with a lot of their goals," said William P. Marshall, former deputy White House counsel under President Clinton and now an expert on presidential powers at the University of North Carolina School of Law. "If there's going to be an area where we're going to see agreement across party lines, this would seem to be an appropriate place."

The Obama plan, announced Friday at the White House, will probably be included in the State of the Union address in a couple of weeks.

"With or without Congress, I'm going to keep at it," the president said. "But it would be a lot easier if Congress helped."

Speaking to a group of small-business owners, Obama displayed a flow chart of the current trade- and business-related bureaucracy, whose lines of command resembled a bowl of jumbled spaghetti noodles.

"That's just confusing," said Max Kryzhanovskiy, a business owner who attended. "We've never chosen to deal with government, partly because the process is insane."

cparsons@latimes.com

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