Democrats sound alarm over Trump’s plan to slash the federal government

WASHINGTON — A congressional hearing on reforming the federal bureaucracy devolved into rancor on Wednesday morning, with some Democrats charging that the Trump administration is trying to privatize essential government functions, including the U.S. Postal Service, without compelling reasons to do so.

In one particularly tense exchange, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., sharply interrupted the sole witness testifying before the Senate Committee Homeland Security and Government Affairs, Margaret Weichert, a high-ranking deputy at the Office of Management and Budget, after having grown exasperated by what she saw as Weichert’s evasive answers.

“Well, you’re not gonna get very far if you don’t give us the data,” a visibly frustrated McCaskill cautioned. “I’m just telling ya. It’s not gonna happen.”

President Trump first proposed reorganizing the federal government less than two months after taking office. In an executive order signed on March 13, 2017, Trump directed OMB to “propose a plan to reorganize governmental functions and eliminate unnecessary agencies.”

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U.S. Sen. Clair McCaskill (D-MO) speaks on the final night of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. July 28, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar
U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) (L) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) talk after a news conference at a hotel in Havana February 17, 2015. Three Democratic U.S. Senators visiting Havana on Tuesday envisioned potential victory for legislation to lift the trade embargo on Cuba by appealing to the free-market instincts of Republicans who otherwise oppose President Barack Obama. Since Obama announced on Dec. 17 a major policy shift on Cuba and the two countries agreed to restore diplomatic relations, Republican and Democratic senators have introduced two separate bills to lift travel restrictions for Americans going to Cuba and to repeal the 53-year-old embargo. The senators concluded their four-day visit to Cuba on Tuesday in which they met with Cuban people and officials. It was the first trip to Cuba for each of them. They expressed optimism about building bipartisan support, possibly overcoming Republican reticence at providing a victory for the Democratic president. Klobuchar is the lead sponsor of the embargo bill and a co-sponsor of the travel bill. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa (CUBA - Tags: POLITICS)
Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee questions a witness in Washington July 17, 2014. The chief executive of Delphi Automotive, the auto supplier that supplied the defective switch to General Motors Co that has been linked to at least 13 deaths, said on Thursday that the automaker was responsible for approving the faulty part design. So far, GM has attributed 13 deaths and 54 crashes to the specific defect, in which the ignition switch can slip from the "run" to the "accessory" position, causing the engine to stall, air bags to not deploy, and a loss of power brakes and power steering. REUTERS/Gary Cameron (UNITED STATES - Tags: TRANSPORT DISASTER CRIME LAW POLITICS)
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (bottom L) attends a meeting at the U.S. Attorney's office in St. Louis, Missouri August 20, 2014. In attendance were (clockwise from top L) Richard Callahan, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo), Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Molly Moran, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo), Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo), and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo). Holder met with community members in Ferguson, Missouri, on Wednesday and vowed a thorough civil rights probe into the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teenager that has set off 11 nights of racially charged unrest. REUTERS/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CRIME LAW)
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo) speaks about pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military at a Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 4, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY CRIME LAW)
U.S. Senate candidates for Missouri Todd Akin (R) and Senator Claire McCaskill debate in Columbia, Missouri, September 21, 2012. REUTERS/Sarah Conard (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)
US President Barack Obama (2nd R) walks with Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) (R) as they depart from the White House in Washington, March 10, 2010. Obama is traveling to St. Louis to deliver remarks on health care. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
Michelle Obama (L), wife of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, sits with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) prior to the start of a townhall-style presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee October 7, 2008. REUTERS/Charles Dharapak/Pool (UNITED STATES) US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008 (USA)
U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to speak at a fundraising dinner for U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) in St. Louis, Missouri, March 10, 2010. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) addresses a question during a "Health Care Listening Forum" at the UMKC campus in Kansas City, Missouri, August 24, 2009. REUTERS/Dave Kaup (UNITED STATES HEALTH POLITICS)
Women U.S. Senators pose together for a television special in the Capitol in Washington January 16, 2007. From left are Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Elizabeth Dole (R-SC), Patty Murray (D-WA), Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Susan Collins (R-ME), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES)
Claire McCaskill (C), Democratic candidate for U.S. State Senate in Missouri, speaks during her acceptance speech after defeating Senator Jim Talent in St. Louis, Missouri, November 7, 2006. REUTERS/Peter Newcomb (UNITED STATES)
Missouri Senate candidate Democrat Claire McCaskill (L) talks to campaign workers while her husband, Joseph Shepard (C), listens on election day in Kansas City, Missouri November 7, 2006. She is running an extremely tight race against incumbent Senator Jim Talent (R-MO). REUTERS/Dave Kaup (UNITED STATES)
Claire McCaskill, Democratic candidate for the U.S. State Senate in Missouri, uses the state's new touch screen voting machine as she votes in the U.S. midterm elections in Kirkwood, Missouri, November 7, 2006. REUTERS/Peter Newcomb (UNITED STATES)
Missouri Senate candidate Democrat Claire McCaskill addresses her supporters during a "Victory Party" in downtown Kansas City, Missouri November 7, 2006. She is running an extremely tight race against incumbent Senator Jim Talent (R-MO). REUTERS/Dave Kaup (UNITED STATES)
Claire McCaskill (R), a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, works the register at a coffee shop during her campaign tour in St. Louis, Missouri November 4, 2006. REUTERS/Tim Parker (UNITED STATES)
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That plan was released last month and included several controversial proposals among its 32 “alignment priorities,” including combining the Department of Labor with the Department of Education, moving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, under the purview of the Department of Health and Human Services and, perhaps most controversially, turning over the financially-imperiled Postal Service to private management.

Wednesday offered the Trump administration a chance to tout its progress to legislators. And though committee chairman Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., opened the hearing gamely, asking members of the audience if they thought the federal government was hopelessly unwieldy (most agreed it was), the mood darkened with McCaskill’s intense criticism of a process she described as opaque and impervious to the necessary scrutiny of Congress.

Weichert defended herself capably from the attacks. A former high-ranking executive at Ernst & Young and other corporations, she had not held a government position until her 2017 nomination to the OMB, where she is now the Deputy Director for Management. She cast herself as a seasoned executive who could bring the sprawling federal apparatus — 430 separate departments, 2.79 million employees, a budget of $4.4 trillion — under some measure control.

“I cringe when I hear how inefficient it is for Americans to interact with their government due to layers of organization bureaucracy. This is not how Americans want their government to operate,” Weichert said. At one point, she described her task by borrowing an acronym used by James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma: BHAG, which stands for “big hairy audacious goal.”

But she could not erase Democrats’ memories of onetime White House political strategist Stephen K. Bannon promising a “deconstruction of the administrative state,” or of Trump’s well-known animosity to a bureaucracy he believes is rife with “Deep State” enemies of his administration.

During the presidential campaign, Trump suggested he might entirely eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Education. And many agencies are so severely understaffed that the White House recently resorted to a job fair to attract federal employees.

It was thus understandable that suspicions ran high on Wednesday. “I’m worried about a sledgehammer coming in,” said Doug Jones, D-Ala.

Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., echoed the worries of liberals who believe that a “consolidation” of the Labor and Education Departments was nothing more than a means to vitiate both. “This administration has a track record of chipping away at workers’ protections,” Hassan said. “Students and workers will presumably be left with no champion” if the two departments are combined and allegedly redundant programs are eliminated, Hassan added.

And while Weichert expressed no overt political ideology, presenting herself as a capable technocrat, she could not escape the fact that conservative groups had long advocated for reducing the scope of the federal government. “We know a lot of these came from Heritage,” McCaskill said bitterly, referencing the conservative Heritage Foundation. “They gave us our Supreme Court nominees, they now are giving us government proposals. We have a right to know where these proposals came from.” (The Heritage Foundation provided the Trump campaign with a list of conservative jurists; both of President Trump’s nominees to the Supreme Court have come from that roster.)

Greg Scott, a Heritage Foundation spokesman told Yahoo News that the think-tank was “pleased that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle recognize The Heritage Foundation for our effective work advocating for sound conservative ideas in numerous policy areas.”

An administration official disputed the characterization of the OMB plan as a Heritage brainchild. “The claim that this is a Heritage plan is a disservice to our dedicated career civil servants,” he said, “who spent a year combing through public [Government Accountability Office] and [inspector general] reports, as well as citizen submissions, in order to craft a proposal that would help make the federal government more efficient, effective, and accountable.”

Trump is certainly not the first president to attempt a taming of the bureaucratic beast. Back in 1993, President Clinton promised a federal government that “puts a premium on speed and function and service, not rules and regulations.” Nineteen years later, Obama vowed to “make our government leaner, smarter and more consumer-friendly.” If those efforts had been successful, there would be little left for Trump to reorganize.

Just how much Trump can accomplish is unclear. Thought Weichert asserted that there were some dozen proposals that the administration intended to act on unilaterally, she did not say what those proposals were, or when they would be implemented. Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional expert at the libertarian American Enterprise Institute, told Yahoo News that “most of what they are trying to do — moving major programs, altering and renaming departments — can’t be done without Congress. And there is no way Congress will agree — including, for example, Republicans on the agricultural committees, but also all Democrats in the Senate.” That could leave this reorganization as imperiled as its predecessors.

As the mood in the hearing room soured, Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican, bemoaned the partisan rancor that he viewed as having been instigated by McCaskill. He also defended Weichert, arguing that the reorganization plan was still in its early stages. McCaskill was not mollified and wondered what the purpose of a congressional hearing was if not to ask difficult questions.

Max Stier, chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, had previously praised Weichert’s hiring, but on Wednesday he voice support for Democrats’ aggressive questioning of the Trump reorganization plan. “Congress plays an essential role in evaluating the administration’s reorganization proposal,” Stier told Yahoo News. “Today’s hearing was an important step in helping Congress better understand the administration’s plan and assess its impact on the American people. It is imperative that the congressional committees of jurisdiction have access to the information they need and exercise their oversight responsibilities in shaping federal agencies and programs.”

For all the discord, nobody present at Wednesday’s hearing dared describe the federal government as a model of efficiency. Something needs to be done, but as is frequently the case in Washington, there is little agreement on what that should be or who should pay for it. “We have multiple government agencies that oversee catfish,” said Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan. “I don’t think we need that. I want ’em to have one agency to make sure catfish is safe when I eat it.” In this age of incessant rancor, catfish safety may be the best Congress can do.

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