Reorganizing the Executive Branch: The Trump Administration’s Plan and What Congress Should Do to Advance It

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Reorganizing the Executive Branch: The Trump Administration’s Plan and What Congress Should Do to Advance It

November 27, 2018 23 min read Download Report
John Warren York
Policy Analyst
John is a policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.


The Office of Management and Budget’s reorganization plan, Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century—which was finalized in June after over one year of consultation between the Office of Management and Budget and cabinet-level department heads—consists of 32 specific recommended changes to the structure and operating procedures of the executive branch, including several independent agencies. If enacted into law, the plan would do much to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of government. Since its release, Congress has called for a hearing on the plan, but has not yet acted to implement any part of it.

Key Takeaways

Without congressional action, the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB’s) reform and reorganization plan is essentially a dead letter.

Given the need for coordination between the executive and legislative branches, there are several ways for Congress to enact the OMB’s plan.

However Congress decides to proceed, it should not let the structural deficiencies identified by the OMB go unaddressed.


Rife with senseless duplication and arcane procedures, the executive branch is long overdue for a streamlined modernization. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), addressing overlap, duplication, and fragmentation of authority among the countless bureaus of the federal government could save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars.REF Along with improving the efficiency of government services, these are the key goals of the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB’s) reform and reorganization plan, Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century.

The plan—which was finalized in June after over one year of consultation between the Office of Management and Budget and cabinet-level department heads—consists of 32 specific recommended changes to the structure and operating procedures of the executive branch, including several independent agencies. If enacted into law, the plan would do much to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of government. Since its release, Congress has called for a hearing on the plan, but has not yet acted to implement any part of it.

Without congressional action, the OMB’s reform and reorganization plan is essentially a dead letter. While the President manages the executive branch, Congress largely determines its structure. Reorganizing independent agencies, several of which would be affected by the OMB’s proposals, is even further outside the President’s purview. Who reports to whom, how much money is allocated to each agency and office, and what procedures bureaucrats must follow in performing their duties are largely set forth in statutes. Thus, while President Donald Trump and his political appointees can and have changed the form and function of the executive branch in many ways, more comprehensive structural reforms, like those set forth in the OMB plan, will necessarily involve both executive and legislative action.

Given the need for coordination between the executive and legislative branches, there are several ways for Congress to enact the OMB’s plan, from setting up fast-track parliamentary procedures for consideration of an executive reorganization proposed by the President to drafting legislation implementing each one of the OMB’s proposals separately. However Congress decides to proceed, it should not let the structural deficiencies identified by the OMB go unaddressed. The costs to the American people are too great.

What Is in the OMB Reform and Reorganization Plan?

The OMB’s plan addresses three distinct problems.

  1. Mission alignment. First, the baroque structure of the executive branch bureaucracy often does not correspond to the missions the executive branch carries out. The reform and reorganization plan addresses fragmentation and duplication, consolidating similar tasks into a single agency.
  2. Service improvement. Second, the plan attempts to refocus the federal government on effectiveness and customer service—rather than compliance with convoluted procedures that it has established for itself.
  3. Stewardship of public funds. Third, the plan attempts to save money by addressing wasteful practices and identifying unnecessary facilities.

1. Mission Alignment

Today, many of the missions in which the federal government engages—from disaster preparedness to workforce readiness training to food inspections—are splintered and distributed throughout the federal government. Job training programs are spread across 40 agencies; 15 agencies administer 30 different food-related laws; and climate change research funding spans 40 different agencies.REF The Trump Administration’s goal is to replace confusing divisions of labor and inefficient overlaps with “clear and aligned structures that allow Federal programs, staff, and agencies to deliver the outcomes the public expects.”REF

Overlapping areas of responsibility and fragmented authority sometimes result in mission failure. For instance, the GAO determined that a 2010 nationwide recall of half a billion eggs due to salmonella contamination was largely the result of fragmented responsibility for food safety.REF With four agencies (the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, Agricultural Marketing Service, and the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) overseeing different aspects of egg production, occasional lapses in coordination are not surprising.REF

The boldest proposal to address this sort of duplication and fragmentation within the OMB’s proposal is to combine the Department of Education and the Department of Labor, creating a new cabinet-level agency called the Department of Education and the Workforce. All other cabinet-level consolidation proposals would combine or shift functions and offices without creating or dissolving departments. Some existing agencies, however, would be merged. For instance, the OMB’s plan would merge the Department of Commerce’s National Fisheries Service with the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, eliminating the latter agency.

2. Service Improvement

According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, the federal government has the lowest customer satisfaction of any sector of the economy.REF As the Trump Administration’s reorganization proposal notes, “federal customers…deserve a customer experience that compares to or exceeds that of leading private-sector organizations.”REF If implemented, the OMB’s plan would inject some of the private sector’s emphasis on customer service into the federal government by creating a “customer experience improvement capability.”REF

Whether this would take the form of an office, an agency, or something else is not clear. The mandate of this new entity would be broad: It would act as an in-house consultant, identifying hard-to-navigate websites, duplicative forms, and other sources of delay and frustration. Then, with the help of the U.S. Digital Service and the General Services Administration, this new entity would suggest solutions to bring customer service up to a higher standard.

Complicating the effort to improve federal services is the lack of standardized measures to evaluate the success of federal programs and regulatory policies. This is a necessary prerequisite to service improvement. Before making budgetary decisions or inaugurating new programs, the government should know, for example, whether existing anti-poverty programs actually lift people out of poverty, whether workplace safety regulations actually lead to safer workplaces, and whether workforce training programs actually help people get jobs. If enacted, the OMB plan would designate senior officials to coordinate each agency’s internal evaluation efforts. It would also require Congress to consider program evaluations as part of the annual budget process. Of course, to be helpful, those evaluations must be conducted with unbiased rigor. Standardized, empirical evaluation measures would help identify and replicate effective programs and best practices—while removing or improving failed methods and programs.

3. Stewardship of Public Funds

Most conservative efforts to save money focus on ending expensive programs, shifting functions to the private sector, and reducing excessive federal compensation costs. The OMB’s plan contains some proposals of this type, such as privatizing the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Postal Service. The plan also suggests selling off many assets owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority and calls for a government-wide reassessment of federal real estate holdings.

These examples aside, most of the savings in the OMB’s plan would come from consolidating functions and agencies rather than eliminating them completely. While this approach to financial savings is smaller-scale than many conservative proposals, it nevertheless moves in the right direction.REF As the plan rightly points out:

Government too often recreates similar administrative functions across programs and agencies, failing to take advantage of opportunities for shared services, centers of excellence, and other arrangements that leverage the highest-performing organizations and free up resources to focus on mission.REF

Reorganizing the federal bureaucracy by consolidating functions saves money by creating economies of scale. Agencies and offices with similar functions often have similar needs; they may use the same supplies, computer systems, mobile applications, or contracted services. By combining agencies, a smaller number of agencies buy a larger amount of these goods and services. This lowers costs in several ways. Buying in bulk is always cheaper; fewer shipments mean lower shipping costs; fewer contracts mean less time spent shopping for and negotiating with vendors; and—because bigger consolidated agencies are negotiating bigger deals—agencies may even get lower prices due to their stronger bargaining position.

Consolidating programs would also help the federal government better gauge the amount of money it allocates to different tasks. Policymakers, who typically focus on the departments under their own committee’s jurisdiction, may not be aware of multiple different budget allocations going to the same purpose. Uniting funding for similar functions would help Members of Congress pare back unnecessary spending and better allocate limited resources to their intended purposes.

Several clear examples of such funding consolidation include the OMB’s proposal to put education and literacy programs, which currently operate across more than 20 federal agencies, into a single agency. Another proposal would move small grant programs currently managed by the Inter-American Foundation and the U.S. African Development Foundation into the larger U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Obstacles to Reform

While critically important, many of the proposals in the OMB’s reform and reorganization plan do not have a clear constituency on Main Street or K Street. Consolidating agencies, shifting programs from one office to another, and standardizing program assessments will have broad, rather than concentrated, benefits. Counterintuitively, the fact that much of the OMB’s plan would benefit a broad swath of the public rather than a targeted number of beneficiaries will likely hurt its chances of passage. The eliminated redundancies and saved revenues would certainly add up, but that money would likely be redistributed widely across federal agencies and programs, trickling down only indirectly to the public. The average American may not readily perceive the incremental improvements the plan augurs.

While the benefits of the OMB’s plans may not be great enough to spur support, the costs, borne by a targeted few, could enflame resistance. Any proposal to eliminate, consolidate, move, or downsize a program will likely run up against at least one so-called “iron triangle” consisting of the civil service employees that manage a program, the congressional committee that oversees it, and the interest groups that benefit from it.REF Each element of the iron triangle has a strong motivation to fight for the status quo. Bureaucrats could be called upon to take on another role or lose their jobs entirely. Members of Congress have a strong incentive to safeguard the size and authority of the agencies under their committee’s jurisdiction. Even the most redundant agency or duplicative program allows Members of Congress to direct benefits and exert power. Lastly, interest groups will be suspicious of any change that could disrupt the flow of federal aid.

Political scientists have long held that policy changes that have concentrated costs and dispersed benefits are often very difficult to enact.REF A fervently oppositional minority can ordinarily defeat a proposal with broad but tepid popular appeal. This is bad news for the OMB’s plan. As the Table 1 indicates, about 67 percent of the suggestions in the OMB’s plan fall into this category.REF

BG3364 Table 1

Underscoring the difficulty of executive branch reform and reorganization, none of the OMB’s proposals have concentrated benefits and widely dispersed costs; changing the status quo is easier under these coinciding conditions.REF When a particular subset of the population, especially one represented by an interest group, will reap outsized rewards from a proposal, they will likely lobby hard on its behalf. And if the costs of a proposal are dispersed broadly such that no one individual or group is hit very hard, fierce resistance is unlikely. This is the very phenomenon that makes earmarks and pork-barrel spending so prolific and pernicious.

While the OMB’s reorganization plan will not have the wind at its back, not every discrete proposal will face equally strong headwinds. About 17 percent of the specific proposals in the OMB’s plan will create concentrated benefits and concentrated costs in approximately equal proportion. For instance, the OMB’s proposal to combine the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety functions will clearly make life easier for farmers—in addition to making the food supply safer (a widely dispersed benefit). If this reform is enacted, farmers will only have to deal with one set of inspections conducted by a single agency instead of interacting with numerous agencies, each of which has a separate inspection schedule. With a strongly supportive constituency behind it, Congress can more easily overcome a galvanized and oppositional iron triangle.

A few elements of the plan—totaling about 9 percent of the OMB’s discrete proposals—will have both broadly dispersed benefits and costs. These proposals will have neither die-hard supporters nor stalwart adversaries. For instance, the cost of creating a government-wide “customer experience improvement capacity” will be borne by the entire tax base, but the additional burden is unlikely to register much alarm. Nor will the proposal rankle bureaucrats, legislators, or interest groups since the plan calls for the creation of a new entity rather than eliminating a pre-existing office or agency. The major obstacle facing such proposals will likely be passive inaction, not active opposition.

What Congress Needs to Do to Implement the OMB’s Plan

Most Presidents have attempted to reorganize the executive branch. However, since 1984, when Congress let lapse the President’s authority to propose executive reorganization plans for fast-track consideration, few have succeeded.REF Only in the midst of a major crisis has anything been done to address the dated architecture of the executive branch.REF To ensure that this plan is not swept immediately into the ash heap of history, Congress will need to take significant action that takes into consideration the unique obstacles facing each proposal within the OMB’s plan.

Without Congress’s determined efforts, little of the OMB’s plan can be implemented. Many changes will require extensive statutory changes. Combining the Department of Labor and the Department of Education, for instance, would involve at least a small change to almost every title of the U.S. Code. Only a small percentage of the OMB’s proposals could be accomplished without any legislation. Moreover, most of these extra-statutory proposals are only intermediary steps toward an ultimate objective that would require congressional action.REF

The first step Congress needs to undertake to further the President’s reorganization authority is to determine what areas of the U.S. Code will be affected by each element of the President’s reform and reorganization plan. This will be an extremely labor-intensive endeavor. Many of the President’s 32 proposals have several subparts, each of which needs to be carefully reviewed for statutory implications. This would take time and the combined manpower of personal and committee staff members, as well as the Congressional Research Service and Legislative Service Agency.

Given the amount of labor and time it would take to draft legislation addressing all of the OMB’s recommendations, Congress may want to take on some of the less daunting recommendations with stand-alone bills. Several of the plan’s 32 recommendations—for instance, a proposal to reintegrate the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs into the USAID’s Bureau for Asia and another proposal to transfer operations and care for 11 Army cemeteries to the Veterans Administration National Cemetery Administration—would require few statutory changes.

The challenge will be choosing proposals that do not have dispersed benefits and concentrated costs. Galvanized resistance from a policy iron triangle can kill even the most innocuous change unless there is a similarly motivated constituency fighting on its behalf. Congress should be sure to pick a proposal like the consolidation of food safety inspection services, which has a clear, organized set of beneficiaries that will lobby for its enactment.

Congress could also draft legislation that encompasses all the recommendations in the OMB’s reform and reorganization plan. The benefit of this strategy is that proposals with concentrated benefits and dispersed costs, which constitute the majority of the plan and would likely die on their own, would be bundled together with proposals that are likely to generate public support or inspire interest group advocacy.REF

One problem with this approach is the amount of time it would take to draft a piece of legislation of this scale. This could foreseeably take many months or even years. By the time this effort concludes, the partisan balance in Washington could shift. In this case, the fate of the Trump Administration’s plan could hinge on a rare bipartisan compromise. Alternatively, supporters could wait until the partisan balance shifts yet again to push the legislation back onto Congress’s docket.

A Fast-Track Alternative for Congress to Consider

If the 115th Congress wants to take decisive action during the lame-duck session between the midterm elections and the beginning of the 116th Congress, it could call on the President to submit a more specific, implementation-ready executive reorganization plan based on the provisions of the OMB report. If it follows this route, Congress should put in place fast-track procedures ensuring an up-or-down vote on the floor of Congress once such a plan is submitted.

The Reforming Government Act introduced in June 2018 by Senators Ron Johnson (R–WI) and James Lankford (R–OK) would do just this. If passed, this bill would give the President the power to draw up a broad plan for reorganization—the specifics of which could go far beyond what his Administration has already proposed—to be considered under designated fast-track parliamentary procedures.REF

The benefit of this approach is that it builds upon the executive branch’s intimate knowledge of its own inner workings and weaknesses. Senior Members of Congress and experienced staffers may know the agencies their committees oversee very well, but the granular details of the administrative apparatus are most clearly perceived by the career civil servants and political appointees who work within it every day. Some of the finely targeted reforms mentioned above give just a hint of the expertise required to properly diagnose and address the dysfunctions of the administrative state.

Giving the President authority to draft and submit a detailed, ready-for-implementation plan would help to overcome the incentive all Members of Congress have to protect the jurisdiction of the committees they sit on. Senators and Congressmen may find it more difficult to vote against a major overhaul touching many parts of the bureaucracy than to vote against a more circumspect bill that threatens to cut or move only one bureau or program under the jurisdiction of their committee. This is because a major government-wide reorganization effort would attract public attention in a way that a reform or reorganization of one office, bureau, or program would not. Given the resonance of the “drain the swamp” rallying cry, it may be difficult for Members of Congress to return home and explain why they voted against a reorganization plan aimed at making the government more effective and efficient.

Moreover, if an executive reorganization plan is guaranteed a single up-or-down vote with no amendments, as the Lankford bill specifies, legislators cannot simply allow a reorganization plan to die a quiet death in committee. And, finally, while Members of Congress may find it difficult to propose statutory provisions that would chip away at the jurisdiction of their colleagues’ committees, they may be more willing to accede to a plan put together by outside experts.REF

Like Members of Congress, career civil servants have obvious motives to oppose any reform that could curtail their influence or put their jobs at risk. But political appointees have much weaker incentives to defend the status quo. After all, they are creatures of an hour. Their time at any one agency or office is typically quite short so their job prospects and reputations are less tied to the perennial existence of an office, agency, or program. To the extent political appointees take the lead in drafting a reform plan, the status quo–affirming agenda of the career bureaucracy should not forestall useful proposals. The OMB’s reform and reorganization plan should give confidence that this approach can bear fruit.

Resurrecting the Idea of Reorganization

Some may argue that the Trump Administration’s reorganization plan is too narrowly focused. To be sure, the proposals are not as broadly transformative as those included in The Heritage Foundation’s Blueprint for Reorganization released in June 2017.REF But this plan need not, as the OMB recognizes, be the final word on executive reorganization. As OMB Deputy Director for Management Margaret Weichert made clear during the congressional hearing on the plan, this is meant to be the beginning, not the end, of a conversation about how to reshape the executive branch.REF

Perhaps the greatest advantage to enacting the OMB’s executive reorganization plan is to resurrect the idea that the structure of the executive branch is malleable. Departments and agencies should not be perceived as permanent institutions. They should exist to the extent they prove useful—but not beyond. Implementing a few relatively small changes would foster a sense that periodic reorganization is possible; subsequent savings and improved services will demonstrate it is advisable. Once minds have been opened to this possibility, bolder plans may well ensue.


According to the Government Accountability Office, addressing overlap, duplication, and fragmentation of authority among the countless bureaus of the federal government could save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars. The Office of Management and Budget’s plan to reform and reorganize the executive branch does much to not only reduce wasteful redundancies but also improve government service.

President Trump cannot implement this plan alone. Congress should work with the Trump Administration to determine what specific statutory changes are needed to fully implement the OMB’s plan and submit legislation before the end of President Trump’s first term.

—John W. York, PhD, is a Policy Analyst in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics, of the Institute for Constitutional Government, at The Heritage Foundation.


John Warren York
John York, Ph.D.

Policy Analyst