For much of the past year, President Barack Obama has been playing defense on spending cuts with the GOP, but his latest plan gives him — and potentially future presidents — a new way to go on offense.
Obama's proposal to revive fast-track authority to consolidate agencies would give the president up-or-down votes on his proposals in both chambers — bypassing filibusters and committees.
"The government we have is not the government we need," Obama said as he outlined his proposal at the White House.
The president said it is a lot easier in Washington, D.C., to add then subtract, and the new authority would help overcome special interests that he said have led to layer after layer of additional government. More importantly, it would allow him to cut through the clutter and force votes on his initiatives in an election year — and if Congress rejects the plan, Obama can accuse them of protecting wasteful duplication.
The proposal is part and parcel with a more aggressive approach from the administration to put Congress on the defensive heading into a difficult election year in which Republicans are certain to make Obama's handling of the budget and the deficit a top campaign issue.
Unlike most Obama initiatives of late, this one earned quick backing from some leading business groups and a wait-and-see response from Republicans — but it faces a tough road to becoming law given concerns in both parties that the presidency already has enough power.
And Obama's plan to first use the authority to reorganize and rename the Commerce Department and other business and trade agencies came under bipartisan fire.
House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) issued a joint statement opposing the inclusion of the trade representative in the new agency.
"The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative is nimble, lean and effective — and time and again it delivers on its mission and creates jobs here at home," they said. "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."
And Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, said Congress "must ensure a meaningful role for Congress on all reorganization proposals at every juncture."
He noted that Congress created the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative "because our trade objectives were not adequately negotiated, implemented or emphasized when trade negotiators and enforcers were part of a broader agency."
But as he introduced his plan, Obama said there are six different agencies and departments dealing with businesses and trade.
"In this case, six isn't better than one," Obama said. "It's redundant and inefficient. With the authority I am requesting today, we could consolidate them all into one department with one website, one phone number and one mission."
The Small Business Administration and the U.S. Trade Representative and assorted other agencies would be folded into the new department, while the biggest piece of the Commerce Department — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — would become part of the Department of the Interior. Obama traced its inclusion in Commerce to President Richard Nixon being angry at his Interior Secretary for criticizing his handling of the Vietnam War. And he noted that created the odd situation of freshwater salmon being regulated by Interior while saltwater salmon are regulated by Commerce — a situation that would finally be remedied.
But even that move came under friendly fire from Obama's own party. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) praised the president's larger initiative to save money but fretted that NOAA would get lost.
"I'm not sure burying NOAA in an already over-burdened Interior is a good idea," he said in a statement.
Begich said Alaska produces more than half of the nation's seafood, and "the proper management of our fisheries is vital to thousands of jobs in Alaska and to protecting this precious resource."
The name for the new department — if Congress goes along — hasn't yet been determined.
Obama said that there are other examples of inefficiency across the government, citing a dozen agencies that deal with food safety and five that deal with housing.
Obama's chief performance officer, Jeffrey Zients, told reporters that the authority is similar to authority held by presidents for 50 years until it lapsed in 1984 under President Ronald Reagan.
Zients called the proposal "a critical next step" in the administration's efforts to streamline government. The Commerce overhaul alone would save about $3 billion over 10 years — a tiny number in the grand scheme of things — but Zients said billions more in savings could be found by reorganizing the rest of the government.
The new fast-track authority would require any proposed reorganization plan to reduce the number of agencies and shrink the deficit.
In the meantime, while the White House waits for the Hill to act on its proposal, Obama said he would elevate the Small Business Administration to his Cabinet. And even after the reorganization, the trade representative would remain in the Cabinet.
Republicans said they would scrutinize the new proposals but criticized Obama for growing the government on his watch.
"So after presiding over one of the largest expansions of government in history, and a year after raising the issue in his last State of the Union, it's interesting to see the president finally acknowledge that Washington is out of control," said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "And 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."
"We hope the President isn't simply proposing new packaging for the same burdensome approach. However, eliminating duplicative programs and making the federal government more simple, streamlined and business-friendly is always an idea worth exploring. We look forward to hearing more about his proposal," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
While the proposal could provide a modest political boost to Obama this year, it could prove even more useful to a Republican president intent on shrinking government far more than Obama. It would be easier to eliminate departments and rework agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau many Republicans want reworked or disbanded.
Several senior Democratic aides said their bosses were not given a heads up about the plan. One suggested that the plan made sense politically in the short term for the president, but could cause problems down the line for Democrats should they end up in the minority with a Republican president.
Nonetheless, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a vaguely worded statement of support.
"Republicans and Democrats have called for government reforms on behalf of efficiency; that is why I hope Congress acts without delay on President Obama's proposal in a bipartisan way," she said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did not comment today. He is scheduled to appear Sunday on "Meet the Press."