Every new elected executive gets to mull changes to the way his or her government branch is organized.
Now a White House proposal to pare departments and agencies has emerged. Officials invoke efficiency, but there also would be an especially rich symbolic meaning, especially in one part of the plan — a merger of the Education and Labor departments.
Top Republicans have talked for years about phasing out the Education Department. Ex-Rep. Ron Paul made it one of five targets for elimination in his 2012 presidential campaign, citing what he then called the nation’s huge debt.
For Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who ran for president the same year, Education was one of three, including the department he now runs.
The GOP in the past didn’t have a monopoly on abolition plans. New York Democrats such as the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm also had doubts about the need for the department, its purpose and its mission.
Plans for a merged entity may make sense in light of who President Donald Trump put in charge: Betsy DeVos, whose lack of experience in the field became an issue during her Senate confirmation.
If the department need not stand on its own, Devos’ shortcomings or any successor’s may end up mattering less.
Around the nation, the Education Department seems to be a less-than-cherished institution, given years of Common Core controversy and the fact that public schools are local institutions.
Combining it with a downgraded Labor Department into a Department of Education and the Workforce also makes a political statement.
To some, it could symbolize handing over eduction to industry. To others, it could mean a reduced emphasis on labor regulation.
Both these general ideas have their fans and critics.
Fiscally, enormous cuts across many agencies would be required to offset the massive federal revenue losses projected from new tax laws and escalating defense budgets.
Potentially money-saving mergers of human-services agencies also are planned, shaped in part by research from the conservative Heritage Foundation.
But Trump at the same time floats a plan to create a sixth military branch called the “Space Force,” dealing with technologies deployed beyond the atmosphere.
Even Defense Secretary James Mattis disapproved of such a move last year. “I oppose the creation of a new military service and additional organizational layers at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint warfighting efforts,” Mattis wrote to congressional committees.
Department mergers depend on congressional approval, of course — thus adding a level of doubt as to if and when each part of the plan would be carried out.
The president’s cut-here-and-expand-there approach means that for this administration, as for others, reorganization will serve as a statement of priorities.