A Trump administration plan to merge the Education and Labor departments is just one part of a larger governmental overhaul proposal. But it’s getting almost all the attention, in part because the two agencies are among the federal government’s largest.
When Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, unveiled the Reform and Reorganization Plan late last month, he said no one could even figure out how many overlapping workforce development programs the two departments had. One estimate put the number at 45, another at 46 or 47. Either way, that’s too many, Mulvaney told President Donald Trump during the public portion of a much-anticipated Cabinet meeting.
“They’re doing the same thing. They’re trying to get people ready for the workforce,” Mulvaney said. “Sometimes that’s education, sometimes that’s vocational training, but they’re all doing the same thing, so why not put them in the same place?”
Mulvaney proposed combining the departments into one new agency, the Department of Education and the Workforce (DEW). Although such a merger makes a lot of sense, especially given the current focus on developing practical, job-ready skills, few analysts believe it could ever happen.
Congress would have to approve such a major overhaul, and lawmakers have too much vested in existing programs to support nixing any of them, said Rick Hess, an education policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
“If you’re a member of Congress and you’re working on a labor bill, you frequently are trying to create a signature program or make a signature change,” he said. “And somebody else on an education subcommittee is trying to create a signature program or make a signature change. And over the decades, what you wind up with is a whole lot of overlapping, competing, parallel program construction.”
That’s how we got the bureaucratic bloat we have now, and that’s what will keep any federal reduction plan at bay. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on the restructuring proposal just six days after Mulvaney unveiled it. Republicans praised the effort, but Democrats immediately focused on what it would do to federal workers.
“One of my major concerns is that this is not just an effort to do more harm to federal employees,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. “I think they have given over and over again. Whenever folk want to get extra money for something, or they need something, they go after federal employees, and it concerns me greatly.”
Margaret Weichert, Mulvaney’s deputy director, tried to allay those concerns by insisting the proposed streamlining wouldn’t cost any federal workers their jobs.
“Something like 60 percent of our existing federal workforce is eligible to retire within 10 years,” she told lawmakers. “Forty percent within three years. So, what we don’t have is a challenge of too many federal workers to deliver the mission. What we do have is a skills alignment challenge and opportunity.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has already taken advantage of that opportunity by cutting her department’s workforce by about 13 percent, saving taxpayers between $40 million and $50 million. That’s the kind of practical government streamlining the Trump administration should tout, Hess said.
“Frankly it seems to me that if the White House is serious about its agenda, it would spend more time explaining why this kind of downsizing is sensible than coming up with ambitious press releases that aren’t going to go anywhere,” he said. “When I look at this, it seems much more about issuing a dramatic statement about something, rather than doing the hard work of governing.”