President Barack Obama has gladdened hearts all along Massachusetts Avenue, Washington's Think Tank Row, where shelves bulge with proposals and white papers, most of them rather well thought out, for streamlining the federal government and making it, as Obama says he wants, effective and lean.
Obama says he will ask Congress to give him authority to consolidate government agencies, with the prerequisite that resulting mergers would save money and shrink the government.
President Ronald Reagan had this authority, but the Democrats controlling Congress didn't trust him to use it and the authority was allowed to lapse. House Republicans are unlikely to restore the same authority to a Democratic president.
When Newt Gingrich and the Republicans took over the House in 1995, they promised that the first order of business would be to cut the number of House committees and subcommittees. We've seen how well that worked out.
Next, in the interests of smaller government, they proposed abolishing the Commerce Department. The department contains the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the weather service and marine fisheries. The public decided it rather liked weather forecasts and fish, and the idea quietly died. Besides, Commerce typically has the smallest budget in the Cabinet, and getting rid of it wouldn't have saved all that much money.
Obama's initial proposal would be to consolidate into one agency Commerce's business and trade functions, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Small Business Administration, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Trade and Development Agency.
Doing so, the president said, would save $3 billion over 10 years and trim 1,000 to 2,000 jobs through attrition. On paper, the idea makes sense because the targeted agencies have overlapping functions, but a common goal of improving business here and abroad.
Obama's biggest obstacle is not likely to be partisanship but a simple question of perks and power: Each one of those agencies represents the domain of a congressional committee, and each one of their various units and administrations the domain of a subcommittee.
Presidents mess with congressional prerogatives at their peril. Plenty of think tanks will attest to that.