R.I.P., Department of Commerce? President Obama Seeks to Consolidate Government Agencies

ABC News

The Department of Commerce will celebrate its 109th anniversary this year, having been created in 1903. And if President Obama gets his way , the agency won't make it much past 110.

Announcing this morning that he is seeking authority to streamline the executive branch, President Obama said he needs the same kind of "authority that every business owner has to make sure that his or her company keeps pace with the times. And let me be clear: I will only use this authority for reforms that result in more efficiency, better service, and a leaner government."

As an example, the president wants to shut down the Department of Commerce, taking its core functions and giving them to a new agency that will also fold in the tasks of the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Trade Representative, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the Trade and Development Agency and the Export-Import Bank.

The savings the administration claims will come from this move is roughly 1/400th of the $1.2 trillion increase in the debt limit that the president formally informed Congress yesterday that he was seeking.

"Right now, there are six departments and agencies focused primarily on business and trade in the federal government," the president said. "Six. In this case, six isn't better than one. 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 - helping American businesses succeed."

The president added: "This is a big idea. "

This new agency would be smaller than the sum of its previous parts by up to two thousand employees (which will be lost through attrition, the White House says), and saving $3 billion over the next decade, said Jeffrey Zients, head of management at the Office of Management and Budget.

"We live in a 21st century economy, but we've still got a government organized for the 20th century," President Obama said this morning. "Our economy has fundamentally changed - as has the world - but the government has not. The needs of our citizens have fundamentally changed but their government has not. Instead, it has often grown more complex."

The president noted that there are "five different entities dealing with housing; more than a dozen agencies involved in food safety. And my favorite example, which I mentioned in last year's State of the Union Address. As it turns out, the Interior Department is in charge of salmon in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in saltwater. Apparently, this all had something to do with President Nixon being unhappy with his Interior Secretary for criticizing the Vietnam War, and so he decided not to put NOAA in what would have been a more sensible place."

The president is as of today elevating SBA administrator Karen Mills to a cabinet-level position to head this new agency on a temporary basis until Congress deals with this proposal. The weather service provided by NOAA and housed in Commerce will become part of the Department of the Interior, while the Census Bureau, also part of Commerce, will go to the Department of Labor.

"Given the President's record of growing government, we're interested to learn whether this proposal represents actual relief for American businesses or just the appearance of it," said a skeptical Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "American small businesses are more concerned about this administration's policies than from which building in Washington they originate.  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."

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said "Americans want a government that's simpler, streamlined, and secure. 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. 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."

The move might help GOP presidential candidate Governor Rick Perry, who has called for the elimination of three agencies - Commerce, Education, and Energy - but has seemed to struggle with remembering more than two of them.

-Jake Tapper

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