Federal Reorganization Plan Is Sleight of Hand to Gut the Safety Net

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House on June 21, 2018.

Over a year ago, the now-ousted Steve Bannon declared that a priority of the just-settling-in Trump administration was the “destruction of the administrative state.” Trump’s cabinet appointees, Bannon said, “were selected for a reason and that is the deconstruction.” While Bannon no longer roams the halls of the White House, his legacy persists (one need only look to the white nationalist immigration policies seeping out of the administration).

And the destruction of the administrative state continues.

Last week, the Trump administration released a plan to consolidate federal agencies and move certain programs to different agencies. While this news may seem innocuous—perhaps nothing more than federal housecleaning—the proposal is likely rooted in a desire to cut social programs.

The first clue that social programs may be threatened is that the 132-page proposal is based on a plan from the right-wing Heritage Foundation, which fervently advocates for reduced government spending, including abolishing several agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The administration’s plan includes shifting around federal responsibilities among agencies to streamline (read: cut) that which, according to Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney, is “bloated, opaque, bureaucratic and inefficient” government.

The plan includes the massive shift of nearly every nutrition assistance program from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Health and Human Services, which would be rebranded as the Department of Health and Public Welfare.

“You’d think that something like this would be motivated by an actual critique of a program falling short or needing some reforms,” says Reid Cramer, director of the Millennials Initiative at New America and former OMB analyst. But, he says, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps, is one of the assistance programs most successful at meeting its objective, as it reduces hunger for millions of Americans. That’s why Cramer says it’s necessary to be skeptical of proposals like this when they come alongside a political agenda—and conservatives have been quite interested in reforming SNAP, advocating for enhanced work requirements in the program.

According to Cramer, it would be much easier to implement this kind of change by “creating a new agency [and] moving an existing program to another jurisdiction.” He explains that such moves would sever institutional memory in federal departments and disrupt the oversight of career staff who have developed expertise in particular programs. “Moving [SNAP] into this agency that’s seen as embodying the welfare state certainly would set it up for political attacks—with an interest in a political outcome instead of an effectiveness outcome,” he says.

Indeed, moving SNAP from the Department of Agriculture would mean that the program loses the bargaining power it enjoys from being joined to agricultural programs popular with conservatives. Delinking SNAP from USDA would probably mean a sizeable cut to SNAP funding, perhaps approaching the almost 30 percent desired by the Trump administration, as detailed in the 2019 president’s budget.

Republicans’ anti-safety-net agenda might also reveal the real purpose of the proposed departmental name change, from “Health and Human Services” to “Health and Public Welfare.” Introducing the word “welfare” brings along all of the negative stigma that many Americans attach to programs for the poor. But Health and Human Services has already been the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; that’s what the department was named when it began in 1953, and then the name was changed to Health and Human Services in 1980 (and education became its own department, as its duties demanded its own cabinet space—more on that later). Over the past few decades, state human services departments have followed suit, removing “welfare” from their titles. Why? Because of that negative stigma. Pennsylvania was the last state to change the department name from “welfare,” when in 2014 the Department of Public Welfare became the Department of Human Services. At the time, Republican State Representative Thomas Murt said the name change “eliminates the stigma associated with the word ‘welfare,’” since human service departments don’t only deal with traditional cash welfare programs.

One can reasonably assume, then, that the Trump administration is interested in welcoming back that stigma for programs like SNAP. It’s a move that Center on Budget and Policy Priorities President Robert Greenstein said “appears calculated,” meant to limit support for the already-bleeding programs that would operate under the massive new department.

The administration is also proposing to merge the Education and Labor Departments. If you’re wondering if that’s also a calculated move, it could be an effective way to eliminate the Education Department, which has long been a goal of many conservatives, and was an objective of a right-wing education organization with ties to both Bannon and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The Trump administration’s stated reasoning for the merger is that education and labor go hand in hand—and this certainly fits with the dehumanizing, conservative idea that education exists solely to produce a labor force that serves the market’s needs.

Of course, the reorganization proposal may just be another pipe dream of the Trump administration, as many of the plan’s components would require congressional approval. When asked by Politico reporters whether he supported the reorganization proposal, Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas said, “I haven’t looked at it because we’re not going to do it.”

But even if the reorganization plan is “unrealistic” and “futile,” as Washington Democratic Senator Patty Murray described it, it is still another example of the world that the Trump administration finds ideal.

That’s a world with limited funds for the hyper-stigmatized programs for the poor.

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

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