01/18/2012 04:52 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2012

What Obama's Reorganizations Won't Accomplish

President Barack Obama may have, for once, made a request that Republicans in Congress can't refuse: he wants powers -- possessed by all presidents between Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan -- that let him reorganize the executive branch on a "fast track" in order to improve efficiency. Obama says that his fast-track intentions, which start with a major plan to merge six bureaus into a new, yet-unnamed federal agency to promote business, will cut thousands of needless overhead positions, improve services and save tax money. So far as it goes, it's a decent plan that Congress should approve. That said, like many of Obama's other feints in the direction of "fiscal discipline," it's not likely to do much. Quite simply, looking at new ways in which government does things rarely makes a difference unless policy makers ask much more fundamental questions about what government does.

Let's start with the basic fact that there isn't all that much fat that reorganizations could cut. Even with the enormous growth of government spending under Obama and President George W. Bush, the federal bureaucracy directly employs fewer people than it did in the late 1960s. And much of it is pretty efficient. Entities such as the Social Security Administration manage big programs with very small overhead components. The administrators of several of the federal government's biggest cost centers -- entitlements, defense and debt interest -- can't really cut expenses at all without fundamental changes in the law and spending. And the government has no direct control at all over the millions of medical professionals who play a role in delivering the healthcare services that comprise the largest segment of the budget. Many of the best opportunities for saving tax money, furthermore, may actually involve increasing such bureaucratic overhead: fighting Medicare fraud -- a major problem by most accounts -- might well require hiring more people at the Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

And the history of federal restructuring shows that while some major reorganizations have made things better, just as many have done harm. Lyndon Johnson's creation of the Department of Transportation, for example, almost certainly did streamline some functions, but Jimmy Carter's decision to create a Department of Energy that mixed military and civilian functions with little regard for common sense probably made already wrongheaded policies worse. And reorganization authority is not a silver bullet in any case: the president and secretary already have extensive powers to remake the Department of Homeland Security. Nonetheless, two administrations quite focused on its activities haven't managed to turn it into a paragon of efficiency.

Real increases in efficiency require asking more fundamental questions about what government does, rather than simply looking into how it does things. For example, if the federal government restructured its dozen-plus food and nutrition programs so that they all focused on feeding the hungry rather than (variously) helping farmers, supporting schools and advancing environmental goals as they do today, it might actually be able to feed more hungry people for less tax money. A single bureau with all the sometimes conflicting goals and mandates of the current programs might cost less and do more than the multiplicity of programs that exist now. The same is so in virtually every field of public sector endeavor.

Fast track reorganization authority, in short, is a decent idea but it's not going to solve any big problems. Congress and the president need to make a lot more hard choices.