The red menace.

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How Big Government Has Outlasted Presidents for a Century

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @smihm.
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Donald Trump’s recent flurry of executive orders mandates that for every new regulation issued by any agency, two must be eliminated. This comes on top of a federal hiring freeze and vows to reduce administrative bloat and otherwise force the government bureaucracy to conform to the kinds of expectations that govern private business.

While Trump sees himself as an outsider president bringing new ideas to Washington, these particular ideas would be painfully familiar to his predecessors. For the past century, presidents of both parties have sought to rein in the federal bureaucracy. Most have failed to make it more efficient. Not even anti-government crusader Ronald Reagan was able to lessen the regulatory burden in any significant way.

Can Trump triumph where so many stumbled? He's already buckling to pressure on the hiring freeze. And if history is any guide, his only chance at success depends on something he's avoided so far: the hard work of building a bipartisan consensus across all branches of government. Here’s what he’s up against.

Reform efforts arguably began with President Theodore Roosevelt, who made his feelings known with this quip: “Our executive government machinery should be at least as well-planned, economical, and efficient as the best machinery of the great business organizations, which at present is not the case.”

Roosevelt’s campaign for efficiency and accountability gave rise to the banal-sounding Committee on Department Methods, which sought to impose order on the burgeoning federal bureaucracy. Like many of its successors, it largely failed, even if it helped establish the idea that the president, as much as Congress, had the power to review and reform the federal bureaucracy.

Future presidents followed Roosevelt’s lead, setting up other committees and commissions aimed at streamlining the federal government. Congress stood in the way of many reforms, refusing to withdraw money from pet projects or agencies. But the individual bureaucracies also proved remarkably resistant to seeing their power diminished.

When President Warren Harding sought to streamline government in the 1920s, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover took the lead. His proposals included a far more expansive role for his own department, all in the name of efficiency. Understandably irked, other cabinet officers fiercely resisted. Nothing came of it.

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The Truman-Hoover alliance was formidable.

Hoover was more successful in retirement, when President Harry Truman asked him to chair what would become the Hoover Commission. “Red Tape himself dwells in the civil service,” Hoover declared in 1949. “The result is an accumulation of waste and dead wood.”

What’s interesting about the Hoover Commissions (there were two) was that they did succeed in increasing the efficiency of government with Congress turning proposals into legislation. This was due in no small part to the unusual bipartisan consensus forged between Hoover and Truman, along with Hoover’s public-relations mastery in getting the public behind him.

But contrary to Hoover’s hopes, his Commission did not shrink the federal government; nor did it curb its regulatory powers. If anything, the recommendations of the Commission led to more government, including the creation of the General Services Administration, an agency that now has a $20 billion budget and employs nearly 12,000 people.

By the 1970s, disillusionment with what became derisively known as “big government” fed a series of campaigns and commissions to curtail the regulatory powers of the federal government. The popular energy behind them even helped deliver Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980. If there was ever a moment where the stars aligned to help put an end to big government and runaway regulation, this was most certainly it.

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Elected to defeat Big Government.

So how did Reagan do? One crude measure comes from the number of pages published in the Code of Federal Regulations, or CFR. After Reagan had been in office for close to a year, that number stood at 107,109. A year later, Reagan had managed to shave that down to 104,983. Then it resumed its upward march, hitting 111,830 in 1984. Reagan managed to drive it back down to 105,935 the following year. By the end of his second term, the number stood in defiance of his crusade at 117,480.

A similar fate befell a more successful effort launched by President Clinton and implemented by Vice President Al Gore. Known as the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, or NPR, Gore sought to empower civil servants as “change agents.”

Obsolete bureaucratic fiefdoms were abolished, departments consolidated, internal rules and regulations slashed. Likewise, the size of the federal workforce declined by over 400,000, though private contractors -- proxies of government power -- likely picked up much of the slack. Still, it wasn’t a total failure, even though Congress did little to implement the NPR’s legislative recommendations.

Moreover, little of this translated into a significant reduction in the regulatory state. As with Reagan, there was a rather modest decline in the size of the Code of Federal Regulations under Clinton, from 132,228 in 1993 to 131,060 in 1997 -- before creeping upward to 138,049 by 2000. As Clinton’s presidency wound, the dream of much smaller federal footprint came to naught, mocking the NPR’s claim that same year that it had put an end to the “era of big government.”

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From ribbon cutting to regulation cutting.

As for actually shrinking government and slashing regulatory burdens – that’s more difficult. No administration has enjoyed sustained success in this regard. But Trump’s current approach – the “twofer” rule – is almost certainly doomed to fail. History suggests that federal bureaucracies are quite capable of undermining such a simplistic directive. After all, regulations vary in size and scope; it’s quite possible to eliminate two redundant, meaningless, or otherwise obsolete regulations and replace them with one that has real teeth. 

Two-for-one gimmicks are a public relations stunt. But if Trump really wants to reduce the federal footprint, he’s going to have to do considerably more than sign a flashy executive order.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net