February 03, 2011

Obama’s Reorg: Keep It or Cut It?

Last week in his State of the Union address, President Obama announced, "In the coming months, my administration will develop a proposal to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best serves the goal of a more competitive America." Sounds good to us: As we in think tanks examine security and foreign policy issues and explore how the U.S. government can address them, there is frequently a structural component: can the government realign itself better to do what we suggest, and if so, how?

Now the president is asking this same question regarding the broad expanse of federal agencies, and we believe that this should be a topic of public debate. We therefore give you a new recurring feature: “Obama’s Reorg: Keep It or Cut It?”  We are going to use the blog to help examine how this reorganization might unfold. An important note: this is intended as an exercise in questioning how our government handles natural security issues in structure, not in style. It is distinctly not a commentary on any individuals who have dedicated their work to serving the public, or a critique of anyone's performance. They are simply our observations on where the government might streamline from an organizational perspective. Already topping our list for review are the Department of Energy, the CIA’s Climate Change Center, various State and Defense Department offices, and more. And as we think it would be really cool if the public thought about and debated how to reorganize the government along with our president and Congress, don’t hesitate to shoot us a note or a tweet if you suggest we consider any specific offices or ideas.

That said, on with our first one. President Obama’s lead energy and climate change advisor or “czar,” Carol Browner, recently announced her departure from the White House. Upon her leaving, I think the media has generally underestimated what her office has been able to accomplish given its size. Much of the focus has been on the failure to pass climate legislation last year, however I know I’m not alone in placing a fair bit of the blame for that on Senate leadership. Additionally, no one predicted that the Gulf oil spill would happen, and that dominated much of the White House’s time in 2010.

Still, my gut instinct for this czar position and office is to cut it. Historically, czar positions don't last and rarely work as intended. For a context, here is a short overview of the nation’s previous energy czars, excerpted from a longer research report I did in 2008:

In June 1973 President Nixon created the Energy Policy Office (EPO), fewer than a dozen people within the Executive Office of the President. Preceded by the National Energy Office – which existed for only about three months – and several ad hoc task forces and councils, Nixon tasked the EPO to coordinate (although not absorb) federal energy efforts and formulate policies for the president. A sitting governor, John Love, was appointed assistant to the president and Nixon’s first energy czar.

Several issues plagued the EPO from the start. That summer and autumn, debate sparked over whether the government might impose gasoline rationing. As the head of the president’s energy office, Love took much of the heat in this argument and other administration policies unpopular on the Hill. The oil embargo also hit in October 1973, and while on paper the EPO had the most direct connection to the president on energy issues, the small new office was not equipped for crisis management.

Widely-reported personality clashes eventually overtook the situation; some attributed this to normal bureaucratic infighting, and others to the structural issue of the office being established without enough access and authority to become a decision-making body. Love contended that it was difficult to get presidential-level attention for the office’s efforts.

The EPO lasted only about six months and Love was demoted and quickly (and very publicly) resigned. Nixon rolled it into the more robust Federal Energy Office (FEO) that December by Executive Order, and appointed then-Deputy Treasury Secretary William Simon as the new energy czar. A trusted Nixon aide, Simon and his position were elevated to cabinet rank. By mid-January 1974 the FEO had 740 employees, many pulled together from disparate departments, and was operating temporarily on Department of Interior funds. In May 1974 Congress granted it statutory authority for two years as an independent agency, and it was renamed the Federal Energy Administration (FEA). Nixon intended it to review and create policies (particularly on deregulation), to conduct energy data collection and analysis, and to plan how the country could become energy self-sufficient.

But in quick succession Nixon promoted Simon to Secretary of the Treasury, replaced him with John C. Sawhill as the new energy czar, and resigned the presidency. And within three months, President Ford fired Sawhill for publicly advocating increased gasoline taxes, a position the administration did not take, and for infighting with several cabinet secretaries. The next serious contender for the office asked the White House to withdraw his name from consideration. Several other high-level officials were mired by conflict of interest inquiries, and several more resigned, publicly citing the FEA’s internal problems and lack of policy influence. Frank Zarb, the eventual FEA energy czar for about two years, was made the central figure to Ford’s proposal to decontrol oil prices, a move highly unpopular with Congressional Democrats and much of the public. The FEA never really gelled; former energy czar William Simon even called it a “cancer on the country.”

There is also a personality issue: who can replace Browner in terms of Washington experience, stature, and rolodex? Names like Arnold Schwarzenegger have been floated, for example. The toughness of that question begs us to consider whether another model should be attempted moving forward instead of a top-level czar. I hope that her deputy and other key advisors are planning to remain in the administration working these issues, though I do hope they can find a home in a new location that avoids the “czar” label and structure.

It is critical that the next permutation of an energy/climate office have robust institutional support, and avoid being located in a place where it is susceptible to territorialism by cabinet secretaries and other officials. During the last presidential transition, there was much debate among natural security types (if I can unilaterally classify them as such) that the National Security Council and/or National Economic Council should have more robust missions on these issues. But is that enough? There are difficulties in that model given the tailored mandates of those organizations. Perhaps something along the lines of a split and reconstituted Department of Energy would be ideal? Perhaps, but let’s save that one for a future edition of Keep It or Cut It.