Thursday, January 27, 2011

Obama's Department of Everything

By Mike Dorf

During his State of the Union, President Obama proposed shaking up the government's organizational chart.  He said:
We live and do business in the Information Age, but the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black-and-white TV. There are 12 different agencies that deal with exports. There are at least five different agencies that deal with housing policy. Then there's my favorite example: The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater. I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked.
There may well be good arguments for re-rationalizing the organization of federal agencies to spur competitiveness (as suggested here).  But the President's examples don't demonstrate that.

The administrative state emerged because of the complexity of the modern world.  A Congress of generalists cannot craft intelligent regulations at the level of detail needed to be effective.  Accordingly, Congress delegates to agencies with expertise in various subject areas.  We have a Department of Defense, a Department of Energy, a Department of Agriculture, a Department of Education, and so on, with further specialization within departments.  For example, the Department of Transportation houses the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, and other agencies as well.

Even if we optimized the agencies, we would still have the "salmon problem."  Consider the question of computer support.  The federal government uses a lot of computers.  At any given time, some of them are not functioning properly, or need to have new software installed, and thus each agency is going to need IT support.  Should each agency have its own IT department?  That would seem redundant.  "Why does the federal government need 357 IT departments?," one can hear the President or other bureaucracy critic asking.    But consider the alternative: A single IT department for the entire federal government, with standardized rules and procedures that would themselves be experienced as stultifying bureaucracy by agency heads who wanted to, say, use Macs when the federal IT department only supported PCs.  Requirements of coordination across agencies will themselves be experienced as red tape within agencies that want flexibility to respond to newly emerging problems.

Furthermore, some jurisdictional overlap is inevitable in any scheme of categorization.  Here's an example from state government: The schools are in charge of disciplining children if they get into fights while on school property but if they fight on the sidewalk while walking home from school, the police handle them.  And if they get into a fight at one of their homes, the parents are in charge.  That looks just like the President's salmon example, doesn't it?  And yet the division of authority here is perfectly sensible because even though there is some overlap between policing, education, and parenting, there are enough differences to warrant this particular separation of responsibilities.

The only way to ensure that every potential object of regulation is regulated by just one government agency would be to have just one agency in charge of everything: the Department of Everything.  But of course the very factors that lead Congress (or a state legislature) to delegate power to agencies in the first place--the impossibility of omniscience--would prevent the Department of Everything from accomplishing much of anything.
Postscript: In discussing the President's example, I have put aside my objection as a vegan to the assumption that salmon are simply a resource for human exploitation and consumption.  I imagine that most readers share that assumption.  The very existence of the almost-word "pescetarian" shows what a hard sell empathy for fish is, notwithstanding the evidence that they are similar to mammals and birds in their capacity to suffer.  People who formerly denied that fish feel pain now commonly say that a being cannot really feel pain unless it understands that it is experiencing pain.  To my mind this gets things exactly backwards: the most searing pains render one incapable of understanding pain or anything else; they are raw sensory experiences, and much the worse to experience as a consequence of that fact.


egarber said...

Of course, the other side of it is the kind of duplication that creates gaps to be gamed. For instance, one reason the regulatory framework failed to prevent the Great Recession is that financial institutions were able to "shop" around for the friendliest regulator.

Joe said...

Why is regulation of salmon (and there would be even if you are a vegan) divided thusly? I assume there is a logical reason.

Michael C. Dorf said...

1) Eric: The core problem to which you refer was that in many respects financial firms were permitted to pick their regulators, which competed over deregulation. (There was a good Planet Money account of this about a year ago.)

2) Joe: Right you are about salmon regulation. I have no objection to regulating habitat, etc. It's the smoking to which I object. Now, as to the basis for the current division, the link I provided to the HuffPo article tells part of the story, but there is surely more. Any geographic division of authority (including dividing up between lakes and oceans) will have these effects. That's what makes the example such a cheap shot.

Joe said...


If smoking is objectionable, it still would be regulated, if only punishments for doing so and to deal with whatever smoking is beyond the authority of the federal government except in a limited fashion.

The link suggests the division has some political implications but the geographical issue came to my mind too. Anything that travels that much is unlikely to only come under one agency.

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