The Re-Organization Man

Work for an organization of any size for any length of time and you will eventually be re-organized.

Over many years in the newspaper business we went through it often enough to notice two kinds of re-organizations. The first kind, and by far the most fearsome, was forced by economic necessity. With revenues shrinking due to those darned internet sites and other changes in the news industry, these re-organizations involved significant numbers of lay-offs and forced the remaining staff to either do more with less or, as on most occasions, simply do less. The other kind, relatively benign and more easily survived, is motivated by some manager’s desire to fool the higher-ups into thinking that he’s actually doing something. These re-organizations mostly involve a change of nomenclature, such as calling the various departments “teams” rather than “departments,” and usually wind up with the same people doing the same things but with new business cards.

The plan announced Friday by President Barack Obama to re-organize a small portion of the federal government — or “streamline” it, as CNN’s headline approvingly phrased it — strikes us as one of the latter kind of re-organizations. With $15 trillion in debt and a bigger payroll than ever, the government so obviously requires downsizing that even such a devotee of big government as Obama can see it. Obama’s proposal is considerably smaller than what is necessary, however, and there is reason to believe that he might not be serious about making even such minor changes.

The plan would eliminate the Commerce Department, something conservatives have long fantasized about, but replace it with a new and as yet unnamed agency that would retain almost all of the old bureaucracy and also include the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corp., the Trade and Development Agency, and the Small Business Administration. By the White House’s own reckoning the plan would cut only 1,000 to 2,000 jobs — all through attrition, meaning that people with jobs that don’t need to be done can stay at work until they decide to take their generous pensions — and save only $3 billion over 10 years, which is about one-third of a day’s spending by the government. All of which spoils the conservative fantasy while upsetting liberals with a special interest in one of the affected agencies, meaning that the plan is unlikely to win approval from congress.

This suggests that Obama is merely trying to make his bosses, meaning the voters mulling whether to renew his contract or not, think that he’s doing something. The plan allows Obama to claim he’s not really the big government devotee that the past three years and $4 trillion have made him seem, and instead pose as a ruthlessly efficient manager paring down a bloated bureaucracy. If the plan doesn’t pass because of bi-partisan opposition, he can still claim to be doing with a battle with a “do-nothing” congress while counting on the support of the placated Democrats who voted against him.

The generally administration-friendly National Journal goes so far as to say that the president is trying to “Out-Romney Romney,” which exposes the flaw in his re-election strategy. Obama will dearly want to attack likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney as a ruthless downsizer who laid off workers in the name of mere economic efficiency during his days with the Bain Capital firm, an argument that will come from his community organizer’s heart, but it would be starkly inconsistent for him to do so while boasting of his own ruthless downsizing.

Our guess is that he’ll go ahead and do both, inconsistency be damned, and hope that nobody notices.

— Bud Norman

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