WASHINGTON — Seeking more power to shrink the government, President Barack Obama on Friday suggested smashing six economic agencies into one, an election-year idea intended to halt bureaucratic nightmares and force Republicans to back him on one of their own favorite issues.
"The government we have is not the government we need," Obama told business owners he'd gathered at the White House. Lawmakers seemed willing to at least consider his ideas.
Sounding like a manager of a disorganized company, and looking like one by pointing to slides as he spoke, Obama asked Congress to give him a kind of reorganization power no president has had since Ronald Reagan. It would guarantee Obama a vote, within 90 days, on any idea he offers to consolidate agencies, provided it saves money and cuts the government.
His first potential target: Merging six major trade and commerce agencies into a one-stop-shopping department for American businesses. The Commerce Department would be among those that would cease to exist.
Attacking senseless duplication across the executive branch he runs, Obama said: "Why is it OK for our government? It's not. It has to change."
Politically, Obama is seeking advantage on the turf often owned by Republicans: Smaller government.
He is attempting to directly counter Republican arguments that he has presided over the kind of regulation, spending and debt that can undermine the economy – a dominant theme of this year's debate and one often cited by his potential re-election rival, Republican Mitt Romney.
Obama said he would use his expanded authority to recommend the collapsing of other agencies across the government, not just in the business field, without getting specific. Congress would keep the final say over any proposal. But fast-track power would give Obama a stronger hand to skip much of the outside lobbying and turf battles and get right to a vote.
Congressional reaction was mixed, but generally followed a pattern from both parties – support for making government more efficient, and wariness about how Obama's plan could upend the trade American trade agenda or undermine the prerogatives of Congress.
Republicans skeptically pointed to Obama's past promises as the size of the nation's debt keeps growing.
"It's not often that we see real proposals from this administration to make government smaller," said Rep. Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "I look forward to reviewing the proposal and hope that it will be the first of many to unravel the red tape."
Indeed, Obama promised more plans to shrink things if given more power, citing inefficiencies all across the government.
In an unusual united front that underscored some bipartisan skepticism, the chairmen of two of Congress' most powerful committees joined in a statement that questioned the president's desire to wrap the U.S. Trade Representative office into a new agency. The House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont, said government cannot be reduced "at the expense of programs that are helping businesses, ranchers and farmers create jobs."
For Obama, it was all about common sense.
He spoke of business people who deal with the government as part of their daily life and are exasperated by a maze of agencies, permits and websites.
"We can do this better," he told them. "So much of the argument out there all the time is up in 40,000 feet, these abstract arguments about who's conservative or who's liberal. ...You guys are just trying to figure out, how do we make things work? How do we apply common sense? And that's what this is about."
Obama had an imperative to deliver. He made the promise to come up with a smart reorganization of the government in his State of the Union speech last January.
Not in decades has the government undergone a sustained reorganization of itself. Presidents have tried from time to time, but each part of the bureaucracy has its own defenders inside and outside the government, which can make merger ideas politically impossible. That's particularly true because "efficiency" is often another way of saying people will lose their jobs.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she hoped Congress would quickly approve Obama's proposal, which she said tracked with worries Democrats have been hearing from small business owners.
Beyond the politics, the merger Obama offered would have big implications for trade and commerce in America.
Presidents held a fast-track reorganizational authority for about 50 years until it ran out during Reagan's presidency in 1984, the White House argued.
Obama wants to merge: the Commerce Department's core business and trade functions; the Small Business Administration; the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative; the Export-Import Bank; the Overseas Private Investment Corporation; and the Trade and Development Agency.
The White House says 1,000 to 2,000 jobs would be cut, but the administration would do so through attrition. The administration says the consolidation would save $3 billion over 10 years by getting rid of duplicative overhead and programs, although it has yet to spell out any plan in detail.
Obama's announcement treads on ground that Romney, the Republican front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, frequently stakes out on the campaign trail. Romney often says he would try to shrink government by eliminating offices that duplicate functions performed somewhere else, citing as examples more than 80 different workforce training programs.
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said streamlining government was always a potentially good idea but expressed suspicion about whether the plan by Obama would really help business. Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, pledged Obama's plan would get a careful review.
But he added: "It's interesting to see the president finally acknowledge that Washington is out of control."
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt, Alan Fram, Erica Werner and Ken Thomas contributed to this story.