April 4, 2017
It came to light yesterday, on Equal Pay Day, as the First Lady-Daughter was tweeting about the gender pay gap and importance of pay equity, that her father had sneakily signed an executive order the previous week, on March 27, that expressly undid President Obama's order to extend workplace protections for women. Classic No. 45 move.
Since taking office, Donald Trump has been on a tear, signing 32 orders, actions, and memoranda to make good on dangerous promises of bans, regulation and protection roll-backs, and in essence, ripping apart every order President Obama set forth to protect and make better the lives of those who inhabit the U.S. So it should have come as little surprise that on March 13, the president would issue an executive order for a “Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch.” It’s one of those names that could mean anything, or nothing. Is it ceremonial? Does it just mean that he’ll find a way to hire even more of his family members? (Well, he has so far.)
Under any other president's administration, this sort of order might be semi-anodyne. But in his tiny hands, we can expect nothing short of a nightmare. The order begins by directing the head of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney (who has vowed to “end Medicare as we know it”), to “propose a plan to reorganize governmental functions and eliminate unnecessary agencies, components of agencies, and agency programs.”
How does something that sweeping even work, particularly when there are 440 federal agencies?
It starts by demanding that every agency head submit, within 180 days, a plan to “reorganize the agency, if appropriate, in order to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of that agency.” In the hands of, say, an Obama administration, this might just serve as a nudge to require agencies to take a hard look at their core mission and how they execute it. But this isn’t the Obama administration. Hell, this isn’t even something akin to the Nixon administration. (Although, to be fair, both Obama and Nixon and everyone in between made some noises about reforming the executive branch.)
Trump’s people are a band of nihilists, many of whom were picked to lead agencies they openly despise. EPA head Scott Pruitt sued the EPA in his former life as the Oklahoma Attorney General. Tom Price, the head of Health and Human Services, deeply hates Obamacare, but probably not as much as he hates birth control. Betsy DeVos, the Education secretary—and sister of Blackwater founder Erik Prince, makes no secret of the fact that she wants to functionally dismantle public education.
Trump didn’t just appoint people who hate the functions of the agencies they were tapped to run. He has also appointed people who have no experience related to the agencies they are now helming. Ben Carson is aggressively ignorant about HUD. Rick Perry has the unusual distinction of both hating the agency he now leads (he vowed to eliminate the Department of Energy when running for president in 2012) and deeply misunderstanding what the Department of Energy does.
None of this is a surprise when you recall that the chief architect of Trumpism, Steve Bannon, has vowed nothing less than the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
Pursuant to the executive order, the public gets to weigh in and “suggest improvements in the organization and functioning of the executive branch.” While this may seem relatively innocuous—who doesn’t want public input?—it is well worth remembering that the entities most likely to respond to this sort of thing are things like corporations and industry groups who have every interest in seeing any government oversight into their activities decreased. Those are also, of course, the entities most likely to get a favorable reception from the Trump administration.
After the public submits their suggestions and the agencies submit theirs, Mulvaney is responsible for submitting a giant plan to Trump, and it must include “as appropriate, recommendations to eliminate unnecessary agencies, components of agencies, and agency programs, and to merge functions.” Mulvaney is obliged to consider some additional factors, many of which clearly signal a desire to wholesale gut agencies and regulations:
(i) whether some or all of the functions of an agency, a component, or a program are appropriate for the Federal Government or would be better left to State or local governments or to the private sector through free enterprise;
(ii) whether some or all of the functions of an agency, a component, or a program are redundant, including with those of another agency, component, or program;
(iii) whether certain administrative capabilities necessary for operating an agency, a component, or a program are redundant with those of another agency, component, or program.
The problem with this sort of framing is that it begins with the idea that government—particularly in the form of governmental agencies—is inherently bad and inherently inefficient. That’s a view that is immensely popular among two sets of people: first, people who have no idea what agencies actually do, and second, people who do have an idea what agencies actually do and want to see them destroyed.
Tom Price knows exactly what agencies do. Trump has proposed cutting the National Institutes of Health budget by 18 percent. Price went to Congress to sell the plan, and explained that the NIH could absorb a hit of that size because there are inefficiencies like overhead payments.
What Price is referring to are indirect expenses. Indirect expenses are those costs that are related to research, but are not actually research, such as the utility bills for a lab where federally funded research is conducted. Close to 30 percent of NIH grant costs go towards those indirect expenses. Universities and research facilities—you know, the people that actually do the research—say that the payments don’t come close to covering costs. An 18 percent hit—or a reorganized grant structure that doesn’t cover indirect costs—is a surefire way to ensure less research, or, more importantly, to restrict the kinds of research you don’t like, such as research on gun violence.
Trump wants far less regulations, period. He’s already called for arbitrary reductions in the number of regulations, which is a spectacularly dumb way to think about good governance. Only anti-regulation people fetishize the number of regulations as some sort of measure of government efficiency or overreach.
At root, Trump’s proposed “reorganization” isn’t that at all. It’s a way to gut programs he doesn’t like and outsource to private sector cronies the ones he does. And it’s no surprise that it is being helmed by Mulvaney, who displayed a shocking lack of knowledge and interest about the federal workforce, including not understanding that Obama’s federal workforce is fewer people per capita than that of Reagan. There’s been no great explosion of the federal workforce. Large-scale administrative waste isn’t the problem Trump and his coterie pretend it is … well, except for defense spending, where it is actually a huge problem. (Trump, of course, wants to expand, not contract, defense spending.)
The reorganization order is also a way to effectuate Trump’s incredibly cruel budget, which wholesale eliminates entire agencies, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Legal Services Corporation, which provides civil legal aid to poor people.
Finally, in case you wanted to know who thinks Trump’s reorganization order is a great idea? Well, there’s the hyper-capitalist climate change deniers over at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. FreedomWorks, the people that brag about mobilizing 21,000 comments against Obama-era rules, is also totally on board. Policy analysts from the Heritage Foundation like it too.
The reorganization order might not hurt people instantaneously. But in the coming year or so, you can expect to see corporate pressure to eliminate vital regulations and drastically reduce oversight, outsourcing key government functions to private companies for private profit, and consistent attacks on programs that serve the marginalized. It’s going to be a rough, rough ride.