Federal Bureaucracy: Lost in the Swamps

May 27, 2000

Lost in the pile of bills awaiting congressional action in this year’s campaign-shortened session is one that could truly make a difference in making government work. The Government in the 21st Century Act, S 2306, sponsored by Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., would establish a nine-member presidential commission to begin the long-overdue reshaping of the federal hierarchy.

The idea has actually been on the legislative docket for more than a decade. Indeed, an early version of the commission was created in 1988 as part of the Department of Veterans Affairs Act, which elevated the VA to Cabinet status. Tacked onto the VA bill by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee as the price for creating the 14th federal department, the commission would have given President Bush the political cover needed to eliminate obsolete agencies and programs. Unfortunately, Bush killed the commission before it was appointed, squandering a rare opportunity to bring some common sense to the federal organizational chart.

Twelve years later, the federal hierarchy still defies common sense. It is choked with overlapping jurisdictions, duplicative programs and redundant agencies, each one no doubt created for a salutary purpose but notoriously resistant to reform nonetheless. Remember Vice President Al Gore’s promise to eliminate the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and move its functions to the Food and Drug Administration? And what about his proposal to transfer the veterans employment program from the VA to the Labor Department? Both programs are exactly where they were when the reinventing began.

In theory, this organizational “cacophony,” as Thompson calls it, could be harnessed for good. The VA and Labor could compete against each other to deliver job training, for example, while the Railroad Retirement Board, Office of Personnel Management and Social Security Administration could compete to deliver retirement benefits. The business could belong to the winner. But just as the swamps at the mouth of the Ulonga-Bora bedeviled Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, the government’s organizational chart serves more to exhaust heroes than to generate competition or innovation.

Thompson’s commission could be just the kind of boost needed to lift the federal bureaucracy out of the swamps. First, the commission would be forced to map the federal organizational chart, thereby providing a guide for potential consolidation. No one knows for sure just how many employment and training programs exist, nor how many federal employees are laboring in different corners to produce essentially the same goods and services. By mapping the bureaucratic terrain, Thompson’s commission would introduce a needed dose of reality into the anecdote-driven debates about organizational reform.

Second, the commission would be required to give the next administration, be it Democratic or Republican, desperately needed criteria for reshaping the hierarchy. With 900,000 federal jobs now on’s Federal Activity Inventory Reform list for potential outsourcing, it should be clear the term “inherently governmental” no longer holds much meaning. Absent some alternative method for determining what is central to government performance and what can be let go, agencies will continue to saw down into their core capacity through attrition and buyouts.

Third, the commission would be asked to generate a list of targets for mergers, flattening and elimination. Done with care, the flattening could help agencies create career paths that fit today’s flexible economy, while giving Congress more leeway in adjusting federal salaries to keep pace with the market. It could also give chief operating officers a forum to influence reinvention.

The only problem is Thompson’s commission lacks power. Unlike several previous versions of his bill, which required action, the current bill merely calls on the commission to present its recommendations to the next President and Congress. Although the President is free to give the commission a legislative idea or two along the way, the final report could easily become one of those archaeological artifacts that find their way into the scholarly literature on why government resists reform.

Without some way to force its agenda onto the legislative calendar, as the military base closing commission did, this commission’s agenda for 21st-century government could easily be delayed until the 22nd century and beyond.

Thompson is right to be respectful of the next administration, since he is a formidable possibility for vice president. But recent reform history suggests that he should choose a more aggressive course. Having worked so hard to map the federal tributaries, Thompson’s commission deserves a chance to force an up-or-down vote on a comprehensive package of reforms. Absent that opportunity, the outcome seems preordained. After all, Congress and the President have proved much more effective at creating rivulets of organizational confusion than great rivers of bureaucratic performance. Thompson should move full speed ahead with the commission, but give it the power to complete its task.

Paul C. Light is Vice President and Director of Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution and Senior Adviser to The Presidential Appointee Initiative.