Urging Congress to work with him to shrink the federal government in an election year, President Obama said on Friday he needs authority from lawmakers to merge six agencies that handle trade and commerce to reduce the frustrations of U.S. businesses.
"This should not be a partisan issue," Obama told an East Room audience. As he spoke, Republican leaders reacted quickly with deep skepticism.
The White House plan would elevate the Small Business Administration to the Cabinet, and combine it with the Commerce Department, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the Trade and Development Agency. Obama said the consolidated organization, announced as Republican presidential candidates pound the administration for bloated federal spending, would have one website and better handle modern business needs.
"No business or nonprofit leader would allow this kind of duplication or unnecessary complexity in their operations," Obama said. "So why is it OK in our government? It's not. It has to change."
Obama asked Congress to give him the authority within 90 days, but approval seems unlikely given the partisan tensions between the White House and the Republican-controlled House. With the GOP campaign under way and lawmakers virtually deadlocked on Capitol Hill, Obama has been pursuing a "We Can't Wait" for Congress agenda, appealing to voter discontent and hoping to seize the issue from Republicans pressing the case for smaller government.
Obama promised to continue, but told small-business owners, "It would be a lot easier if Congress would help."
Under the proposal, the Commerce Department would cease to exist, handing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association over to the Interior Department and the rest of its operations to the new organization. The U.S. Census would become part of a statistics branch under the Labor Department. Approximately 1,000 to 2,000 jobs would be lost, according to White House estimates, most through attrition. The new organization will be named when the White House sends a formal proposal to Congress.
House Speaker John Boehner’s office was skeptical of the effort, pointing to Obama’s “record of growing government.”
“American small businesses are more concerned about this administration’s policies than from which building in Washington they originate. We hope the president isn't simply proposing new packaging for the same burdensome approach,” spokesman Brendan Buck said. Nonetheless, he said Republicans share the goal set out by the president, calling it “always an idea worth exploring,” and adding, “We look forward to hearing more about his proposal.”
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also showed little enthusiasm.
"After presiding over one of the largest expansions of government in history, and a year after raising the issue in his last State of the Union, it’s interesting to see the president finally acknowledge that Washington is out of control," said spokesman Don Stewart. "And while we first learned of this proposal this morning in the press, we'll be sure to give it a careful review once the White House provides us with the details of what it is he wants to do."
The head of the Small Business Administration currently is Karen Mills. The president's authority to assemble his own Cabinet supersedes Congressional authority and allows him to promote Mills without a vote.