WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama announced Friday a new campaign to shrink the federal government, a proposal notable less for its goal – the fight against bloat has been championed by every modern-day president – than for its challenge to a hostile Congress.
Obama called on lawmakers to grant him broad new authority to propose mergers of government agencies, which the Congress would have to approve or reject in an up-or-down vote.
The president, announcing the plan at the White House, said he would begin his pruning exercise by folding the Small Business Administration and five other agencies involved in trade and business, into a single agency that would replace the Commerce Department.
The White House said the consolidation would save $3 billion over 10 years and eliminate 1,000 to 2,000 jobs, though he said those reductions would occur through attrition rather than layoffs.
“From the moment I got here, I saw up close what many of you know to be true: The government we have is not the government we need,” Obama told an audience of small business owners.
It is not clear whether Congress, which has blocked the bulk of Obama’s legislative agenda, will go along with the initiative. White House officials said no president since Ronald Reagan has had the consolidation authority Obama is seeking.
Republicans were immediately skeptical. They suggested that the White House was more interested in honing its re-election message than in reducing the size of government.
“Yesterday, President Obama asked for a $1.2 trillion increase in the debt limit, today he is proposing to shrink the federal government,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “Unfortunately, President Obama does not have much of a record to back up his newfound, election-year enthusiasm for limited government.”
A spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner said that Republicans would take a look at the plan.
“We hope the president isn’t simply proposing new packaging for the same burdensome approach,” said the spokesman, Brendan Buck. “However, eliminating duplicative programs and making the federal government more simple, streamlined, and business-friendly is always an idea worth exploring.”
By putting the onus for streamlining government on Congress, however, Obama was seizing a core issue of Republican presidential candidates like Mitt Romney – the inexorable growth of the federal government – and trying to turn it to his own political advantage.