Political News

Reorganization Focused on the Safety Net

Posted June 20, 2018 10:00 p.m. EDT
Updated June 20, 2018 10:04 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump plans to propose a reorganization of the federal government as early as Thursday that includes a possible merger of the Education and Labor departments coupled with reshuffling other domestic agencies to make them easier to cut or restructure, according to administration officials briefed on the proposal.

The plan, which will most likely face significant opposition in Congress from Democrats and some Republicans, includes relocating many social safety net programs into a new megadepartment, which would replace the Department of Health and Human Services and probably include the word “welfare” in its title.

Trump and his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, the architect of the plan, have sought to redefine as welfare subsistence benefit programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and housing aid. It is part of a rebranding effort, championed by conservative think tanks and House Republicans, to link them to unpopular direct-cash assistance programs that have traditionally been called welfare.

“They have been using the word welfare because it is pejorative,” said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. “The programs you can call welfare are actually very small in comparison to SNAP, which is an income support necessary to help families, workers and millions of kids.”

At the heart of the plan is an attempt to shift SNAP, which serves more than 42 million poor and working-class Americans, to the new agency from the Agriculture Department. Conservative think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation and Koch-related entities, have long sought to de-link food aid from agriculture in hopes of cutting costs.

Senate Republicans, who have already rejected a more modest Trump administration attempt to increase work requirements for SNAP recipients, are unlikely to sign off on the shift, which was first reported by Politico.

As recently as this month, Mulvaney was also considering merging the Labor and Education departments, either in the new welfare agency or in a new stand-alone department, according to a person with knowledge of his plans.

Calls to the White House and its budget office were not immediately returned.

The recommendations also include a number of less contentious proposals to streamline the government.

Mulvaney’s proposal is, in part, a back-to-the-future bureaucratic move. From 1953 to 1979, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare housed most of the nation’s social welfare and economic support programs. It was abolished by Congress under President Jimmy Carter, and split into the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education, in recognition that no single department could manage all of the old department’s functions.

Another proposal included in a draft circulated to officials last week is an attempt to move the $3 billion Community Development Block Grant Program to the Department of Commerce from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, an official said.

This year, Mulvaney zeroed out funding for the grant program, which provides a broad and flexible funding pool for an array of community development, only to have Senate Republicans restore the cuts.

An adviser to a senior Senate Republican said the move to the Commerce Department was an attempt to strangle the program by removing it from career HUD officials who were more sympathetic to the demands of impoverished communities than Commerce Department officials.

Conservatives have been agitating to remove development programs from HUD for years. In 2006, aides to President George W. Bush unsuccessfully pushed to shift 18 programs to the Commerce Department.

Under Trump’s plan, HUD would gain control over the Agriculture Department’s rural housing program. A proposal to shift veterans’ housing to HUD was considered but rejected, according to an administration official with knowledge of the plan.

The Education Department has been eyeing several programs run by the Labor Department that it believes it would run more effectively, according to an extensive proposal drafted by Education Department officials last fall, and obtained by The New York Times in March.

Among the proposals in that plan was for the Education Department to reroute funding from the Labor Department’s program for adult and dislocated workers to invest in federal financial aid grants for the unemployed to use at short-term job training programs. The Education Department also proposed to take over some administration of an overhauled H1-B visa program for skilled workers to enter the United States, allowing it to use visa fees to bolster science, technology, engineering and math education.

The proposed merger of the Education and Labor departments was first reported by Education Week.

Mulvaney and White House officials have closely guarded details of their plan, sharing them with political appointees but not career staff members at Cabinet departments.

Administration officials said the blueprint for the plan was a 2017 list of reorganization recommendations produced by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The group’s wish list includes the elimination of a handful of well-known federal programs, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Export-Import Bank. It was not clear if Mulvaney had adopted those suggestions. But he is expected to propose far-reaching overhauls to the consumer bureau, which he runs as a second job.