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Obama seeks power to trim government

President Barack Obama discusses government reform Friday in the East Room of the White House. (Associated Press)
President Barack Obama discusses government reform Friday in the East Room of the White House. (Associated Press)

Republicans wary of election-year request

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is asking Congress for fast-track authority to shrink the federal government, creating an election-year talking point even if House Republicans reject his request.

Obama’s plan – to do away with the Department of Commerce and combine its core functions with five other agencies – is designed to cut costs and make it easier for American businesses to deal with the government, administration officials said.

Under his blueprint, Commerce would be merged with the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, the U.S. Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Trade and Development Agency. The new, as-of-yet unnamed agency would have its own secretary, plus another Cabinet-level member from the trade office.

First, though, the president wants Congress to grant him the authority to expedite such an overhaul, as well as future ones. That means reorganization plans would be subject to a simple up-or-down vote, and couldn’t be amended. The authority expired during President Ronald Reagan’s term.

It’s hardly a given that Congress would grant Obama expedited authority. But simply proposing it gives Obama a proposal to talk up on the campaign trail, one that might be even more valuable if opposed by Republicans.

Republican leaders Friday expressed support for streamlining the government, noting their own efforts.

But they are wary of the details, and are concerned about proposals Obama might come up with down the road. Democrats are worried about what a Republican president might do with the power.

Downsizing the government is a hot topic among GOP presidential candidates, some of whom have vowed to eliminate agencies. With the issue bound to come up in the general election campaign, Obama is emphasizing his own efforts to reduce the bureaucracy.

“This is an area that should receive bipartisan support, because making our government more responsive and strategic and leaner – it shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Obama said Friday.

Republicans didn’t disagree, exactly.

“Given the president’s record of growing government, we’re interested to learn whether this proposal represents actual relief for American businesses or just the appearance of it,” said Brendan Buck, press secretary for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

President Herbert Hoover first won the power to quickly streamline government, subject to a congressional veto. The Obama plan would tweak past practice by proposing that fast-tracking be allowed only when the changes would save taxpayers money. Congress would have 90 days to vote on the president’s reorganization plan.

The Obama plan, announced at the White House on Friday, is likely to be included in the State of the Union address in a couple of weeks.

“With or without Congress, I’m going to keep at it,” the president said. “But it would be a lot easier if Congress helped.”


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