Friday, January 13, 2012

bad approach on a questionable policy

I suppose I should wait until we have the president's official explanation of what reporters say he will propose today, but I won't.  The White House has already indicated that the president will ask Congress for legal authority to reorganize several federal agencies dealing with foreign trade, subject to a legislative veto.

Ain't gonna happen. Congress is generally reluctant to grant broad reorganization authority because presidents tend to disregard congressional equities and interests in the process. Especially in an election year, this is a gimmick, not serious public policy.

There's a deeper reason in this case: Congress doesn't want a consolidated trade organization. It created the job of U.S. Trade Representative in 1974 in order to have someone in the White House, reporting directly to the president, who was ultimately beholden to Congress for his job and his negotiating authority. It has resisted calls for a Department of Trade because different committees each want to keep under their control the entities they created. The USTR is overseen by the Senate Finance and House Ways & Means Committees; the Commerce Department by the commerce committees; the export agencies by the foreign policy committees; the Small Business Administration by the small business committees.

Consolidation is always the first refuge of government planners. They think that putting everybody under one umbrella will make everybody friendlier and more cooperative. Sure. Look at the Department of Homeland Security. Sure. Look at the magnificently coordinated policies of the Energy Department. Consolidation can make some sense, but it is no silver bullet for solving challenges of policy coordination or integration.

If the president really wanted to promote U.S. export expansion -- a worthy goal -- he should avoid the election year ploy of reorganization authority and propose instead a law that would accomplish that, and let the Congress sort out what might make more and less sense.

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