Flanked by screens showing details of his proposal to reorganize some federal agencies, President Obama speaks Jan. 13 during a briefing in the White House's East Room. (Jim Watson / Agence France-Presse)
President Obama on Friday said he is elevating the Small Business Administration to Cabinet-level status and asking Congress for authority to merge SBA, the Commerce Department and other agencies that handle business and trade functions into a single department.
"The government we have is not the government we need," Obama said in a speech at the White House. "We need to think bigger."
Besides SBA, the new agency would encompass:
• The Commerce Department's core business and trade functions.
• The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
• The Export-Import Bank.
• The Overseas Private Investment Corp.
• The Trade and Development Agency.
The new agency would also include the Bureau of Labor Statistics, now part of the Labor Department, and an unspecified part of the National Science Foundation, according to Jeffrey Zients, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.
In another move, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would move from the Commerce Department to the Interior Department, Zients told reporters after Obama's address. The Census Bureau would remain in the Commerce Department.
"We'd have one department where entrepreneurs can go from the day they come up with an idea and need a patent, to the day they start building a product and need financing for a warehouse, to the day they're ready to export and need help breaking into new markets overseas," Obama said.
Speaking to a group of invited business owners, Obama asked for "fast-track authority" to enable him — and future presidents — to propose specific reorganizations for up-or-down congressional votes. Under a fast-track authority, Congress could not amend or change the plan submitted by the president.
"With this authority, we'd help businesses grow; save businesses time; and save taxpayer dollars," Obama said. "This is an area that should receive bipartisan support."
The merger would lead to 1,000 to 2,000 federal jobs being cut, but the administration would do so through attrition, Zients said.
The merger would save $3 billion over 10 years by getting rid of duplicative overhead costs, human resources divisions and programs, Zients said in the conference call. He did not have a breakdown on the number of jobs that would be lost from each agency.
In arguing for more freedom to reorganize executive branch agencies, Obama said he is seeking to restore the same authority enjoyed by presidents from the 1930s until 1984, when lawmakers stopped granting it during the Reagan administration.
The White House plans to send proposed legislation to Capitol Hill "in short order," Zients said. If lawmakers go along, the administration could also use the new-found authority to address overlap and fragmentation in food safety and other areas.
Obama first announced his proposal to streamline government in last year's State of the Union address.
Resistance on Hill
Obama's chief hurdle is getting the proposal through a hostile Congress during an election year.
"My guess is that this is probably [dead on arrival]," said Bill Reinsch, a former Senate staffer and Commerce Department official in the Clinton administration who now heads the National Foreign Trade Council. "I don't think the House will be disposed to give him this authority, regardless of the merits of his proposal."
But Jitinder Kohli, an expert on government restructuring at the Center for American Progress think tank, called the administration's plan a good one that deserved careful consideration.
Opponents, Kohli said, should think about resisting something that "would save money and help promote the country's future prosperity."
Apart from partisan politics, congressional turf protection could be an even more formidable obstacle.
The administration's plan to fold the U.S. Trade Representative's office, for example, into the new agency drew bipartisan objections from the chairmen of the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over the office.
"Taking USTR, 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," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., said in a joint news release.
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., noted that almost a year has passed since Obama proposed a government reorganization. "While we first learned of this proposal this morning in the press, we'll be sure to give it a careful review once the White House provides us with the details of what it is he wants to do," Stewart said.
In a statement, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called on Obama to collaborate with Congress on his plan.
"I stand ready to work with President Obama on proposals to reorganize federal agencies," said Issa, whose committee could have first crack at the reorganization legislation. "While I have been disappointed that the White House has not embraced earlier bipartisan congressional efforts seeking collaborative engagement on proposals to reorganize government, I hope this announcement represents the beginning of a sincere and dedicated effort to enact meaningful reforms."
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, called the White House plan "an important and innovative proposal."
"If done right, this kind of initiative can help our economy and streamline our government," Lieberman said in a statement.
Sen. Susan Collins, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, also signaled interest in Obama's proposal. In a statement, she said, "There is no shortage of agencies and programs ripe for streamlining and eliminating duplication to save money and improve service. After all, especially in this difficult fiscal climate, Americans should only pay for something once, not dozens of times."
"The Department of Commerce, a catch-all department of programs ranging from weather to the census to trade, is one place to start. I will carefully review the president's consolidation proposal. As a former New England Administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA), I want to make sure that the president's plan does not make it more difficult for small businesses to access SBA's loan guarantees and assistance programs," she added.
The administration also plans to launch soon a new website called BusinessUSA.gov to simplify online interaction between businesses and the government, federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel said Friday at a government-industry forum.
"What you'll see on the launch of this is really stage one," said VanRoekel, whose office is developing the website. The site, currently in a beta version, will consolidate information and services from the Commerce Department, SBA and other trade agencies.
Users will be able to create a profile and easily find information and resources specific to their needs, VanRoekel said. For example, if a veteran- or minority-owned business is interested in loans or exporting, it could indicate those interests in its profile and receive information from the website about those topics.
"We shouldn't be an inhibitor through the complexity that we present people," VanRoekel said.
David Jackson writes for USA Today. Staff writer Nicole Johnson also contributed to this article.