Obama seeks power to shrink government

President Obama on Friday sought permission from Congress to streamline and merge federal agencies to untangle an "outdated bureaucratic maze" and help boost experts and small businesses grow.
President Barack Obama
J. Scott Applewhite

One year after promising make the government more efficient in his State of the Union address, President Obama on Friday called on Congress to make it easier for him to do it.

Mr. Obama wants the authority to make proposed changes to the executive branch that Congress would then have to approve or deny without changes within three months.

"We need to do more, and we need authority to do more. So today I'm calling on Congress to reinstate the authority that past presidents have had to streamline and reform the executive branch," Mr. Obama said in remarks in the East Room of the White House.

His first effort to "modernize and streamline" would be a merger of the six government agencies with responsibility for trade and business.

"In this case, six isn't better than one," he said, "it's redundant and inefficient."

Mr. Obama wants the six agencies, including the Commerce Department and U.S. Trade Representative's office, to be consolidated with "one website, one phone number and one mission."

That mission, and the goal of this proposal, is to make government agencies more consumer friendly with less paperwork, less reporting, and less confusion.

"As it turns out, the Interior Department is in charge of salmon in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in saltwater," he said, reusing his favorite example of confusion and inefficiency he made famous in last year's State of the Union.

The example dates back to the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon purposefully shortchanged his Interior Secretary Wally Hickel, who had been critical of the administration's efforts in Vietnam.

Another predecessor, President Ronald Reagan, was the last president to hold the authority Mr. Obama is seeking.

Mr. Obama argued that the world has changed in three decades, and it is time for a change.

"In 1984, didn't have -- we didn't have the Internet, just to take one example. A generation of Americans has come of age. Landlines have turned to smartphones. The Cold War has given way to globalization. So much has happened. And yet the government we have today is largely the government we had back then, and we deserve better," he said.

Mr. Obama emphasized, as he has before, that making the government leaner is not an issue that should be divided along party lines, and while he appealed to Congress, he also said he will keep fighting for small businesses no matter what.

"So with or without Congress, I'm going to keep at it. But it would be a lot easier if Congress helped. This is an area that should receive bipartisan support, because making our government more responsive, strategic and leaner - it shouldn't be a partisan issue."

To start the process without Congress, Mr. Obama also announced that as of today, the Small Business Administration would be elevated to a cabinet-level agency and a new website, Business USA would be launched in the coming weeks. The site would serve to consolidate information for small business owners that is currently stretched across multiple government sites.