Politics

Zombie agencies are nearly impossible to kill

President Donald Trump and staff met with members of the Senate Finance Committee in the Cabinet Room of the White House in  October.
Doug Mills/The New York Times/file 2017
President Donald Trump and staff met with members of the Senate Finance Committee in the Cabinet Room of the White House in October.

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WASHINGTON — Just over a year ago Donald Trump came into the White House promising to slice the federal bureaucracy with such ferocity that, as he put it, “your head will spin.” Shortly after taking office, he identified 19 little-known federal offices for elimination.

But despite Trump’s efforts to do away with what he sees as government waste, the bureaus are all still living, breathing, and spending taxpayer dollars. These zombie agencies are proving to be difficult to kill.

From regional development commissions to arts councils, to offices responsible for fostering foreign aid, all these bureaus have continued their work.

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“There’s not very much progress being made,” complained Justin Bogie, a senior policy analyst in fiscal affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “I don’t think the prospect of budget cuts is good.”

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This is a president who pushed through a $1.5 trillion tax bill, unilaterally announced tariffs that rocked the global financial markets, and launches near-daily attacks on the nation’s law enforcement institutions, yet he is now bedeviled by an age-old Washington problem: He can’t seem to get rid of even an obscure $4 million federal bureau.

That’s in part because doing so requires delving into the nitty-gritty of government, an exercise that Trump has shown little interest in pursuing. So while he has used his Twitter feed and knack for showmanship to stylistically redefine the presidency, in matters of bureaucracy and budgets precious little has changed.

And fiscal discipline hasn’t been much of a priority for anyone with power in Washington. The tax cut didn’t include spending offsets, and more recently Congress and the White House reached a budget framework that lifts spending limits, pushing the estimates for the national debt to World War II-era levels.

President Donald Trump signed the tax reform bill in the Oval Office.
Doug Mills/The New York Times/file 2017
President Donald Trump signed the tax reform bill in the Oval Office.

“There is very little pressure to get rid of anything in the budget,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a Washington-based group that supports cutting the federal government. “Every single line item has a really strong constituency.”

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Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, seems to understand the difficulty of turning the administration’s annual request for budget cuts into something approximating reality.

“Is this dead on arrival?” Mulvaney asked as he unveiled the latest version of Trump’s spending plan to the media last month in Washington. “That’s the popular question that everybody asks.”

He offered a fairly realistic, though unambitious, response to his own question. “This is a messaging document,” Mulvaney said. “The executive budget has always been a messaging document.”

But even that “messaging document” sent the message that the president is open to negotiation on cuts: The Trump administration scaled back the number of agencies targeted for elimination to 15 from 19.

A case study of sorts in bureaucratic survival is illustrated by the Appalachian Regional Commission, one of the agencies Trump initially wanted to get rid of last year.

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This roughly $150 million program might seem like an obvious place to slice. That’s what budget experts at the Heritage Foundation thought when they offered a “Blueprint for Balance” in 2016 and recommended eliminating it.

Heritage analysts determined that the commission “duplicates highway and infrastructure construction” already covered by the Department of Transportation and it diverts federal funding to “projects of questionable merit,” including initiatives to support tourism and craft industries, according to the Heritage Foundation’s report.

Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican of Iowa, tried to take a whack at the Appalachian Regional Commission, too, proposing an amendment last April that would eliminate it along with three other regional commissions.

But her amendment failed, with 71 senators voting to keep these regional commissions plugging away.

As it turns out, the Appalachian Regional Commission has a lot going for it that might not be apparent at first glance. It crosses 13 state boundaries. In Washington math, that means 26 senators have a reason to care about it. (Twenty-three of those 26 senators voted to keep it alive, including 15 Republicans.)

One of states served by the commission is Kentucky, which is home to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. In January Trump nominated one of McConnell’s top staffers, Tim Thomas, to be the federal cochairman of the commission.

This year, Trump didn’t suggest eliminating the agency. It’s off the kill list.

Other agencies don’t have an obvious geographical constituency and need to get more creative to avoid shuttering. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a longtime target of conservatives, is in that category.

The Heritage Foundation has criticized the agency, which promotes American investment in developing countries, as outdated because there are private businesses that provide similar loan guarantees and other hedges against political risk.

“OPIC displaces these private options by offering lower-cost services, using the faith and credit of the US government,” according to Heritage.

Trump initially agreed that the agency was unnecessary and mothballed it in his first budget plan last year. But this year something changed, and the agency is instead getting a presidential blessing.

There’s a new name in the works — “the United States International Development Finance Corporation” — and pitch-perfect bureaucratese to explain its new scope, describing a role that is “expanded but streamlined,” according to a news release outlining the re-organization.

There’s a lot of expansion — it wants $134 million, an increase of 55 percent over its 2017 budget — but a spokeswoman did not respond to a question about what would be “streamlined.”

There were early signs that the development agency was on a path to salvation. In August Trump appointed Ray Washburne to take over as president and chief executive. He’s a well-known political donor who gave $200,000 to GOP candidates in the last election cycle, including nearly $40,000 to back Trump.

Other agencies that Trump wants to cut are so well-known and well-loved on Capitol Hill that pronouncements of elimination don’t cause much of a stir. That’s probably the case for the Legal Services Corporation, a $380 million enterprise that Trump wants to erase from the federal budget.

“It is not going to happen,” said James Sandman, president of Legal Services Corporation. “Year after year after year Congress has funded us.” He explained why: His 43-year-old agency provides legal assistance to poor people facing civil cases in every county in the country.

Being on the president’s list has caused consternation. No presidential administration has seriously suggested eliminating it since the Reagan years. “We’ve been especially diligent about reaching out to Capitol Hill and making our case to members of Congress,” Sandman said.

One of the federal offices slated for closure does have a gloomier outlook: The tiny Interagency Council on Homelessness.

It’s a federal bureau that coordinates various buckets of spending on combatting homelessness with the help of 20 staffers and a budget of less than $4 million. But it’s set to go out of business in October, which means Congress would have to act to keep it running.

Trump has kept the homelessness council on his target list for elimination. And the House of Representatives offered money for an orderly shutdown.

But there’s still hope for bureaucratic survival: The Senate has offered to fund the agency and eliminate that sunset.

Why do these little agencies matter?

“They aren’t going to balance the budget,” acknowledged Bogie, the analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “But if we’re not willing to cut these little programs, how are we ever going to make the bolder reforms?”

Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AnnieLinskey.