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Stalled Plan to Remake Commerce

A laugh line from the 2011 State of the Union address — that salmon is regulated by different departments depending on whether it is in salt water or fresh water — seems like a safe bet to remain a national joke a little while longer.

President Barack Obama’s proposal, announced earlier this year, for fast-track authority to consolidate agencies and programs — starting with the Commerce Department — is in legislative limbo amid  broader Congressional gridlock and with Commerce Secretary John Bryson on medical leave following his involvement in two car accidents last weekend. The plan would have put the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is responsible for saltwater salmon, in the Department of the Interior, which handles the freshwater fish, as part of a much broader plan.

“There was little movement before, and now I think you can officially close the door,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said. “This is like the last nail in the coffin unless they try to resurrect it after the election and Obama wins.”

The two proposals — consolidation authority and radically reworking and renaming the Commerce Department — ran into heavy flak on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers in both parties vowing to either kill parts of the proposals or suggesting that other priorities, such as the economy, had precedence.

The Commerce reorganization also has a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told lawmakers at a hearing earlier this year that he wouldn’t start planning on moving  NOAA into his department, as proposed by the White House, unless he knew Congress would give Obama the authority to do so. And Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said at a separate hearing on the consolidation authority that it would be unwise for Congress to grant the authority without knowing exactly how it would be used.

The White House did give an outline of remaking the Commerce Department,  stripping it of big pieces such as NOAA and consolidating trade functions and the Small Business Administration in a new, as-yet-unnamed agency.

The trade aspect of the plan has also been highly controversial — particularly the proposal to fold the now-independent Office of the U.S. Trade Representative into the new agency. House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) penned a joint letter effectively nuking the idea as soon as Obama proposed it, and Baucus said in a brief hallway interview this week that it’s still going nowhere.

The consolidation authority did at least get a hearing in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who is sponsoring the bill along with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), said then that he would put it on his “bucket list” of items he’d like to see passed by the end of the year, before he retires.

But Lieberman said this week that there hasn’t been much of a push yet from the White House, and the plan faces headwinds in a Congress that seems gripped with pessimism about accomplishing anything.

“I thought it was a good initiative. It’s controversial. We held a hearing on it. I don’t know how much appetite there is to get into it,” he said. “To me, it would be one of the best things we could do for the next president, whether it’s President Obama’s second term or Gov. [Mitt] Romney. … I mean, everybody talks about how the federal government’s gone big, inefficient. This is really a way to put a little bit of pressure to actually change the way the government is.”

Still, Lieberman said proposals such as consolidation authority would have to overcome the deepening cynicism about Congress’ ability to get anything done.

“When you see things that are languishing and beginning to slide off the screen, like the transportation bill or the agriculture bill, then the appetite for some of these things is lost. … I don’t share that. I think we’ve got to try and keep getting things done until the year is over.”

Warner said he’s still working on it.

“I think, as a former governor, it makes enormous sense,” he said. Democrats continue to search for a Republican to co-sponsor the plan, which Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) earlier expressed some interest in. It’s sponsored in the House by Rep. John Barrow (Ga.), a conservative Democrat.

The administration said it continues to push the proposal and hopes it will get bipartisan support. The fast-track authority had been enjoyed by presidents for decades until it lapsed under President Ronald Reagan.

“Eliminating wasteful duplication and unnecessary bureaucratic barriers is something members of both parties can agree on — and we are urging the Hill to pass the president’s reform proposal to reinstate reorganization authority,” said Moira Mack, spokeswoman for the White House Office of Management and Budget. “We are heartened that both houses of Congress have taken up the president’s legislative proposal to accelerate government consolidation and reform and are continuing to discuss the importance of reinstating this authority with Members of Congress and legislative staff.”

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said he’s all for consolidation but isn’t sure he likes the fast-track authority. “I think we still have to have a check and a balance on this,” he said.

Begich has been a critic of moving  NOAA out of Commerce.

“I think it is dead, at least for now, at least the NOAA piece,” Begich said. “It’s not a hot topic for them right now.”

But his Alaskan colleague Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) did back the idea of moving NOAA in a letter published in the Alaska Dispatch last month labeling the agency “A Fish out of Water” in the Commerce Department. “There are many issues on which I disagree with President Obama,” she wrote. “When someone is right on something, however, it is important to give credit where it’s due. … The president asked Congress to provide him with authority to reorganize the federal landscape. Whether Congress agrees to do so or retains that power for itself, at least one part of this plan — moving NOAA into the Department of the Interior — appears to have real merit. It’s time to start making it happen.”

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