In normal times, the Trump administration’s interest in streamlining the massive, heavily indebted federal government would be highly intriguing. Combining the Education and Labor Departments has considerable logic, given the need for lifetime worker training to respond to new technologies routinely wiping out whole industries. So does consolidating trade, housing, job-training and food/agriculture programs that are now spread across an improbably large number of agencies.
Such streamlining has the potential to achieve not just more efficient but vastly cheaper government — a wonderful goal. The tech-driven productivity revolution that transformed much of the U.S. private sector in the 1990s has never reached the public sector. Especially with artificial-intelligence algorithms growing ever more capable of handling routine tasks, it’s reasonable in some categories of public employment to wonder why open positions are ever filled. The McKinsey consulting group says governments around the world could save a staggering $4.2 trillion if they were serious about using tech tools and best practices seen in the private sector.
But there are two very good reasons to doubt the proposal has even a tiny chance of ever happening.
The first has to do with the fact that in the three years since he launched his presidential bid, Donald Trump has made all sorts of bold promises that he then promptly forgets. Yes, Trump has followed through on promises he can achieve unilaterally — such as backing away from the Paris climate accord and rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. On an overhaul of the tax system, Trump did in fact work with Congress to pass something.
But it’s easy to get Republican majorities to cut taxes. It’s not easy to work with Congress to improve the Affordable Care Act, set up a massive infrastructure program, vastly increase veterans’ access to medical care, get rid of the Common Core education framework and more. These are all now-ignored Trump promises. If, come autumn, Trump and budget director Mick Mulvaney — his point person on streamlining government — no longer said a word about the topic, no one would be surprised.
Yet the second reason to doubt this streamlining is possible has nothing to do with Trump and everything to do with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan and their faux fiscal conservatism. The GOP leaders haven’t shown genuine concern about reining in spending and the national debt since Trump took office.
In a normal news environment, a Senate vote last Wednesday would have triggered national ridicule. A Republican plan to cut $1.1 billion in spending over 10 years — or 0.08 percent of total federal spending — failed after two GOP senators couldn’t stomach the infinitesimal pain it might cause someone somewhere. Now Americans are supposed to believe this same bunch is going to show the resolve necessary to eliminate government agencies that have thousands of workers and support from well-connected special interests?
It’s always frustrating to watch Washington struggle to address big issues because of partisan gridlock. But when it comes to trying to control federal spending and to stop piling additional trillions of dollars on the national credit card, Americans now see gridlock of a different sort: one driven by a fear of making tough decisions. If Trump, Mulvaney, McConnell and Ryan want to change this perception with a sincere effort to streamline government, that would be a pleasant surprise.
The editorial staff at the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote this editorial. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.