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Obama seeks power to streamline government

Plan gets mixed reaction from both parties

- The Washington Times - Friday, January 13, 2012

President Obama's request for greater power to shrink the size of the federal government is getting mixed reviews in Congress, with even some prominent Democrats opposed to parts of the plan and others warning against handing the executive branch too much power.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, issued a joint statement with his GOP counterpart on the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Dave Camp, Michigan Republican, opposing the elimination of the trade representative as a stand-alone agency.

"Taking [the office of the U.S. trade representative], one of the most efficient agencies, that is a model of how government can and should work, and making it just another corner of a new bureaucratic behemoth would hurt American exports and hinder American job creation," they wrote.

Rep. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat and the ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, was more diplomatic, but still wary, arguing that any consolidation plan "must ensure a meaningful role for Congress on all reorganization proposals at every juncture."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, on Friday called on Congress to quickly pass Mr. Obama's consolidation proposal, but many Democrats have complained that they weren't consulted by the White House before the announcement.

If the early words of caution are any indication, Democrats may end up being a bigger impediment to Mr. Obama's proposal than Republicans, who generally favor efforts to downsize government.

Several key Democrats also were opposed when President George W. Bush asked for the same authority in 2003.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, a liberal who served as the ranking member of the Government Reform panel at the time, strongly opposed a proposal from then-Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, to give Mr. Bush more flexibility to reorganize federal agencies.

"I know there are those who favor transferring most of the responsibility for executive reorganization from the Congress to the White House," he said at an April 3, 2003, committee hearing. "This may not be the wisest course."

In 2003, with a Republican in the White House, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, whose district is home to many government employees, had concerns as well: "There's obviously a lot of unease among federal employees with respect to handing over this kind of authority without the kind of oversight that we have today."

Today, the Maryland congressman is taking a wait-and-see approach.

"The issue is going to be the extent of the authority and what the president said he intends to do with it," Mr. Van Hollen told The Washington Times on Sunday. "I have gotten information from the administration that they intend to use this authority for a very targeted effort that deals with small-business activity. I have to see the exact proposal from the administration and receive some assurances that it makes sense from the perspective of achieving better value."

Presidents held such reorganizational power for 50 years until the authority expired during President Reagan's term in 1984.

Even though Republicans controlled the White House, the House and the Senate in 2003, the Davis proposal eventually sank as Congress wrestled with the more pressing tasks of realigning national security agencies under one roof at the newly created Department of Homeland Security in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Almost a decade later, Republicans are ridiculing the timing of the president's streamlining proposal, coming as it does at the beginning of an election year and just weeks before the one-year anniversary of his 2011 State of the Union address in which he promised a smart reorganization of government.

But Republicans' support for smaller government is a basic party principle, and GOP leaders and champions of cutting government waste could have a tough time rejecting the president's proposal outright.

A spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner said he hoped the plan would be more than just window dressing.

John Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, who has spent years fighting for leaner, more efficient government, called Mr. Obama's proposal a small step in the right direction.

"[Sen.] Coburn applauds the effort and believes that Congress needs to go much further," the spokesman said.

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