Reorganizing the Executive Branch: Jimmy Carter's Project

In contrast to his predecessors, Jimmy Carter, elected president in 1976, quickly showed his strong interest in reorganizing the executive branch. He aimed to obtain Congressional renewal of his power of reorganization, with the purpose—already stated in his electoral campaign—of putting in order the “horrible bureaucratic mess” into which the federal administration had been transformed: this would be accomplished through the president’s being delegated more extended capacities of reorganization. As a candidate, he had affirmed that were he to win the election, the new Carter administration would “give top priority to a drastic and thorough revision of the federal bureaucracy.”4 The new chief of the White House had included administrative reform among the points of his platform, and a group had been formed within his transition staff for the planning and reorganization of the executive branch. Their directives would be implemented by Carter, once his term of office actually started. President Carter personally considered reorganization as part of an exercise to cleanse Washington of its corruptions. Structural reform was viewed by the new president not as one of the many possible tools for addressing the idiosyncratic problems of departments and agencies. Rather, reform was considered as the lynchpin of the new administration’s reorganization package: already during the transition period, the Office for Management and Budget (OMB) and the White House cast about for “problems” that structural change could address.5

As we have seen, the evolution of theories of the private enterprise economy and social organization had brought 1960s and 1970s experts of administration to seek an alternative to the managerial presidency that was forged in the Roosevelt years.6

The old paradigm of the scientific management therefore seemed incapable of assuring impartiality and efficiency, since lobbying practices allowed a few regulated parties to heavily influence the regulators (interests capturing); and, at the same time, the federal government had grown too much in its interference in national economy, burdening the private sector with excessively high taxation. Trust in professional bureaucracy and its designated rules was eroding, and this trend left space for accusations of corruption and favoritism.7

To address these problems of political legitimacy, a new sense of morality in public administration was needed. The president wrote in 1977, “Nowhere in the Constitution.... or the Declaration of Independence.... or the Emancipation Proclamation, or the Old Testament or the New Testament do you find the words ‘economy’ or ‘efficiency.’ Not that these two words are unimportant. But you do discover other words like honesty, integrity, fairness, liberty, justice, courage, patriotism, compassion, love—and many others which describe what a human being ought to be. These are also the same words which describe what a government of human beings ought to be.”8

In 1977 Carter set up a group within the OMB for the reorganization of the executive branch. The choice of the OMB was not a random one, since it put reform plans under the supervision of the president. Carter claimed that he wished to maintain a gradual approach to reorganization, and that his mission was not, as had been the case in the past, the strengthening of executive authority, so much as the ways with which the government operated. Despite this rhetoric, however, the recommendations of his Presidential Reorganization Project (PRP) turned out to be very similar to those of the commissions and task forces that had preceded it.

Carter named a new director of the OMB, Bert Lance, whose mission was to pursue a new project called the PRP. The administrative philosophy of this reorganizational project was more pragmatic than its precedents, focused more on the facts rather than the principles expressed by administrative theories. The vice director of the OMB John White declared, “Reorganizations should proceed from problems which had been identified towards solutions rather than from preconceived notions of idealized structure.”

This approach connected with the changes that were developing in the private sector. American capitalism was launching itself toward a new phase, based on innovation of industrial processes, and more large-scale competition. The old top-down structures were perceived as no longer satisfactory for an expanding market that demanded increased flexibility and adaptation. Evidence of these changes had already appeared during the Truman presidency, when Charles W. Wilson, President of the General Electric Company and formerly Vice-President of the War Production Board during World War II, had put in doubt, in a Senate hearing on the consolidation of the Armed Forces, the theorem that centralization would produce greater efficiency. Companies like General Electric were successful precisely because they had decentralized decision-making through diverse managerial divisions “that were coordinated, not controlled by the ‘top man’.”10 Furthermore, research in the field of corporate organization demonstrated that the hierarchical theory was unsatisfactory for describing the way in which organizations actually functioned, and on this basis experts progressively moved toward the study of human relations, developing new theories.11

According to Carter’s team, the process of administrative reform should evolve from a top-down to a bottom-up model. Operationally, the reform program was a solid one. Forty new external advisors were hired, and the OMB’s own budget grew by over two million dollars, which were spent on employing 32 new civil servants.12 The PRP, in contrast to almost every other initiative for the reorganization of executive power, did not produce a final comprehensive report on all its recommendations. The two key elements of the project were, on the one hand, the drastic reduction of the number of administrative agencies—to be accomplished, however, in a gradual way—and, on the other hand, the reorganization of the federal departments. In particular, the proposal was made for the creation of a Department of Energy, with the aim of centralizing in a single structure all the policies pertaining to a sector of such vital importance for the geopolitical role of the United States. The project also proposed detaching the purview of instruction from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, for the sake of creating a Department of Education, precisely to underline the Carter administration’s political commitment to this issue. Ten reorganization plans were sent to Congress, all of which were accepted by the legislative body. Among the most important results were the reorganization of the Executive Office, the reduction of its structural components, the creation of an inspectorate for the extraction of petroleum in Alaska, the creation of the two new departments mentioned above, and the centralization of the management of emergencies in the Federal Emergency Management Agency.13

As had been unsuccessfully tried by the Johnson and Nixon presidencies, the project envisioned the creation of super-departments tied to the presidential Cabinet, and Carter sought to implicitly create these new departments under his reorganizational authority, re-naming and eliminating the old offices. At the same time, Congress opposed the attempt to evade the limits imposed on the president’s reorganizational powers, which disallowed the possibility of installing new ministries without legislative approval. Therefore, despite the power granted to the president by the Reorganization Act, Congress prohibited him from proceeding with such ample changes, without specific parliamentary authorization.

In fact, notwithstanding Carter’s declared intents, the Reorganization Act of 1977 did not arrange for significant expansion of presidential authority: the legislative veto was maintained, and there was the rejection of giving the president the possibility of instituting or abolishing not only departments but also agencies. In addition, he was constrained to specify, in his own plans of reorganization, estimates of eventual increases in public spending. Carter’s success was thus only a partial one. Among the positive results for the president was the definitive concession of the possibility to submit to Congress’s attention a maximum of three reorganizational plans at the same time.14

The president succeeded in making forward progress on other fronts as well. For example, he instituted the Department of Energy in 1977 and that of Education in 1979. Moreover, Congress supported the president’s initiatives to reduce the size of the Executive Office, consolidate the separation of functions of federal officials, centralize the management of emergencies in the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and redistribute the functions of the Civil Service Commission across two different organizations.15

Carter’s successes derived from the realism of his political strategy, since the White House never underestimated Congress’s lack of will for radical change in the reorganization of the executive branch, something which legislative power had never fully tolerated. Not by chance did the Reorganization Act of 1977 pass through Congress and confer upon the president powers to emend reorganization plans: it was sent through the House and the Senate only after the polling of the opinions of congressional committees and the same governmental agencies. The president’s strategy of consultation about the reforms with other institutional players had worked well.

Carter was probably the first president of the post-Roosevelt era who did not seek to reorganize the executive branch in order to facilitate the presidency’s management of administrative agencies or exclusively to reach his own policy objectives. With realism, and by applying “de-politicized” and more technical solutions, he sought to simplify government and to improve performance following.

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