Is Trump Review Just Al Gore Reinventing Government 2.0?

Clinton-era staffers see flaws aplenty in new effort

Clinton, right, tasked Gore to head his Reinventing Government initiative. On Monday, Trump promised a similar review of government efficiency, but there are key differences in who has the authority to carry it out. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Clinton, right, tasked Gore to head his Reinventing Government initiative. On Monday, Trump promised a similar review of government efficiency, but there are key differences in who has the authority to carry it out. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted March 15, 2017 at 12:05am

Donald Trump, ever the marketer and salesman, says past presidents’ attempts to shrink the federal government “never” accomplished that goal “to the extent” he will. Yet, many parts of his soup-to-nuts review resemble a Clinton administration effort to “reinvent” the federal apparatus.

The new president signed an executive order Monday that launched the latest try at shrinking government, eliminating redundancies and cutting costs. The missive orders all government agencies to propose ways to reorganize operations and pare unnecessary programs, which the White House claims will produce a significant restructuring of the federal government.

Several government experts who worked on the Clinton-era effort acknowledge similarities with what Trump has put down on paper, including a desire to cut spending and nix duplicative offices. But after reviewing Trump’s order and observing his administration’s first two months, they see a “budget drill” that lacks the structure that will produce “real reforms” aimed at making agencies function better, rather than “fake cuts” offered by departments to fend off Trump’s budget ax men.

“To give them credit, it is time to do it again. It is time to review the government again and ask the hard questions about what it’s doing and what it should be doing,” said Elaine Kamarck, who directed the Clinton initiative. “And it is time to focus on obsolete functions and getting rid of them.”

But she sees several flaws in the approach Trump put forth: “They have no political appointees in place to supervise this, and you really do need that. And they have no independent entity to challenge the agencies and come up with real reform ideas.”

While on the campaign trail, the businessman and reality television star vowed to “drain the swamp” of Washington. Part of that pledge was a vow to slash the budget and make major changes to a government Trump claimed did not care about nor work for many Americans he described as the “forgotten men and women.”

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Though President Bill Clinton typically used more upbeat rhetoric, he notably used similar language when he launched what he initially dubbed a “national performance review” on March 3, 1993, as Trump did during the Monday signing event in the office Clinton once occupied.

“Our goal is to make the entire federal government both less expensive and more efficient, and to change the culture of our national bureaucracy away from complacency and entitlement toward initiative and empowerment,” Clinton said then. “We intend to redesign, to reinvent, to reinvigorate the entire national government.”

Here was Trump on Monday: “We will develop a detailed plan to make the federal government work better — reorganizing, consolidating, and eliminating where necessary. In other words, making the federal government more efficient and very, very cost productive.”

Paul Weinstein, a former Clinton aide who worked on the 1990s effort, said Tuesday it appears Trump and his top aides want to “bludgeon” the federal apparatus to find things to cut.

“We were about making government work better for Americans. We were trying to make things more efficient and more effective,” he said. “We used the term ‘costs less and works better.’ His EO doesn’t really say much about making government work better.”

On the surface, the 45th president’s initiative tends to look and sound like a budget exercise designed mostly to permanently eliminate billions in annual federal outlays.

After all, when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer summarized it for reporters Monday a few hours before it was signed, he pointed to its savings focus: “This order requires a thorough examination of every executive department and agency to identify money — where money is being wasted and how services can be improved.”

Weinstein called the administration’s initiative “simply a budget drill,” saying it appears “they’re just trying to find some savings. … If they really want to reorganize government and improve government, they need to do a more serious approach and not just slashing and burning.”

Kamarck agreed, saying that “if you have OMB running it, it’s simply a budget drill.”

“They are asking agencies to proffer up things that they think they can cut. It is better than [automatic, across-the-board cuts] because it forces agencies to say, ‘We can trim this, but we cannot trim that,’” she said.

“They also seem to have another problem: The agencies will go to the Hill and ask their appropriators, ‘How much do you really want us to cut?’” said Kamarck, now with Harvard University and the Brookings Institution. “This administration doesn’t seem to understand they aren’t in charge here — the appropriators are in charge. … I think Trump came in thinking he could just do stuff.”

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To that end, some top Republicans who lead the House and Senate Appropriations committees and their subpanels already have made clear they own the power over the purse strings, signaling opposition to some cuts floated by the White House.

But, at least on Monday, the Trump administration said the review would focus on non-budgetary matters, as well.

Spicer pointed to the order’s mandate to look at “whether or not the programs are truly serving the American people.”

Hours later, Trump echoed Clinton, who 24 years ago said what came to be called the “National Partnership for Reinventing Government” also would identify “ways to improve services to our citizens and to make our Government work better.” The still-green populist Republican chief executive said his initiative also will suggest “how services can be improved” and determine “whether programs are truly serving American citizens.”

Like Clinton did, Trump says his administration will seek out experts inside and outside government, as well as “the American people themselves.” And, just as Clinton did, the current president gave his lieutenants six months to complete the first part of their work and report back to him.

Both presidents saw a role for Congress, with the former Arkansas governor casting his push as “bipartisan” and Trump making clear on Monday he will need Congress to turn any plan into legislation before it could be fully implemented.

To be sure, however, there are other ample differences.

For instance, the Clinton-era program was led by Vice President Al Gore, with a big assist from the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Trump put his OMB chief, former Rep. Mick Mulvaney, in charge.

“One of the biggest differences is in how he implements this. Who’s going to do this? We put the vice president in charge and set up a very large enterprise,” said Weinstein, now a professor at The Johns Hopkins University. “It’s not clear to me who’s really going to be in charge.”

“You really need someone with more cache than OMB has,” he said. “And it has to be someone who’s not perceived as just going in with a hatchet and whacking away.”

Mulvaney, while in the House, was considered a leading spending and deficit hawk, long advocating deep federal spending cuts.

Both Kamarck and Weinstein said Vice President Mike Pence likely has the necessary inside-the-Beltway clout, but said he is too busy with other things. In separate conversations, they suggested someone from outside government with a proven history or turning around large organizations or companies.

The Clinton administration’s effort appeared more nuanced and layered at its start. John Kamensky, who was heavily involved, wrote in a January 1999 memo summarizing the “Reinventing” project that Clinton officials quickly set up a 250-person task force, which swelled to 400, that included government employees, state and local government workers and consultants. The program even eventually got its own office space on 17th Street NW in Washington, just across the street from the White House.

Based on the memo Trump signed, his government-shrinkage effort will largely consist of department and agency heads compiling data and proposals, then submitting them to Mulvaney and his team at OMB.

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The comprehensive review must scan what the Office of Personnel Management calculates are 4.2 million federal employees and the right-leaning Competitive Enterprise Institute concludes could be up to 430 departments and agencies.

That means Mulvaney and his staff must sift through a coming tidal wave of data while also working on three other big Trump priorities: garnering support for a GOP-crafted health overhaul, finishing a fiscal 2018 budget blueprint, and working out a deal with lawmakers on fiscal 2017 spending that is needed next month to avert a government shutdown.

The Clinton team used federal workers, on loan from various agencies to do its review. (Those workers were sent to evaluate other departments, to guard against biases.) Trump’s order contains no language to specifically establish the kind of professional infrastructure that was used in the 1990s program.

A White House spokeswoman did not reply to an inquiry, which in part sought more information about why Mulvaney was tasked to lead the review given the list of other things on his docket.

Where Trump has criticized federal workers, Clinton extended an olive branch at the start of his review, promising to “turn first” to them for “help” because “they know better than anyone else how to do their jobs if someone will simply ask them and reward them for wanting to do it better.”

Fast forward to present day, and Trump has instituted a federal hiring freeze and cast government workers as part of the country’s problems.

Kamarck described the federal workers assigned to her task force as crucial to identifying serious proposals.

“You need an equivalent team that’s challenging the agency heads. We had teams from other agencies that brought to agency heads a menu that said, ‘These five academics said you don’t do this well,’ or ‘Congress has always wanted you to do X,’” she said. “Without challenging them to think, this won’t happen. You’ll just get fake things thrown at you.”