Remarks of President Barack Obama – A 21st Century Government
Good morning, everyone. As small business owners, you know as well as anyone, that if we’re going to rebuild an economy that’s built to last – an economy that creates good, middle-class jobs – we all have to up our game.
The other day, I met with business leaders who are doing their part by insourcing – by bringing jobs back to the United States. And I told them, if you’re willing to keep asking yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back, I’ll make sure you’ve got a government that helps you succeed.
That’s why we’re here today. I ran for this office pledging to make our government leaner, smarter and more consumer-friendly. And from the moment I got here, I saw up close what many of you know to be true: the government we have is not the government we need.
We live in a 21st century economy, but we’ve still got a government organized for the 20th century. Our economy has fundamentally changed – as has the world – but the government has not. The needs of our citizens have fundamentally changed but their government has not. Instead, it has often grown more complex.
There are five different entities dealing with housing; more than a dozen agencies involved in food safety. And my favorite example, which I mentioned in last year’s State of the Union Address. As it turns out, the Interior Department is in charge of salmon in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them in saltwater. Apparently, this all had something to do with President Nixon being unhappy with his Interior Secretary for criticizing the Vietnam War.
No business or non-profit leader would allow this kind of duplication or unnecessary complexity in their operations. So why is it OK in our government? It’s not. It has to change.
Today, I am calling on Congress to reinstate the authority that past presidents have had to streamline and reform the Executive Branch. This is the same sort of authority that every business owner has to make sure that his or her company keeps pace with the times. And let me be clear: I will only use this authority for reforms that result in more efficiency, better service, and a leaner government.
Congress first granted this authority to presidents in the midst of the Great Depression, so that they could swiftly reorganize the Executive Branch to meet the changing needs of the American people. For the next 52 years, presidents were able to streamline or consolidate the Executive Branch by submitting a proposal to Congress that was guaranteed a simple up or down vote.
But in 1984, while Ronald Reagan was President, Congress stopped granting that authority.
And when this process was left to follow the usual Congressional pace, not surprisingly, it slowed down. Congressional committees fought to protect their turf. Lobbyists fought to keep things unchanged because they’re the only ones who can navigate the bureaucracy. And because it’s always easier to add than to subtract in Washington; inertia prevented any real reform from happening. Layers kept getting added on. The Department of Homeland Security was created to consolidate intelligence and security agencies but Congress didn’t consolidate on its side. DHS right now reports to over 100 different Congressional panels. That’s excessive.
It has been a generation since a President had the authority to propose streamlining the government in a way that allowed for real change to take place. Think of all that has happened since 1984. A generation of Americans has come of age. Landlines have turned into smartphones. The Cold War has given way to globalization. So much has happened – and yet the government we have today is largely the government we had back then. We deserve better.
Go talk to the skilled professionals in government who are serving their country – some of the hardest-working folks you’ll find anywhere – and they’ll tell you that their efforts are constantly undermined by an outdated bureaucratic maze. Go talk to the Americans – including, I know, a lot folks here today – who deal with the government on a regular basis and they’ll tell you that it’s not always the highlight of their day.
Over the past three years, we’ve taken steps to fix this problem – to bring our government into this century and, in doing so, to root out waste. We made sure the government sends checks to the right people, in the right amount, which should be obvious – but we’ve been able to prevent $20 billion dollars in waste over the last two years. And we cut government contracting for the first time in more than a decade. And we cut a whole range of overlapping programs.
So we’ve done a lot. But we need to do more. We need to think bigger.
Today, I’m outlining changes we could make if Congress gives the green light to allow us to modernize and streamline. These changes would help small business owners like all of you. Right now, there are six departments and agencies focused primarily on business and trade in the federal government – from the Commerce Department to the Small Business Administration to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. Six. In this case, six isn’t better than one. It’s redundant and inefficient. With the authority I am requesting today, we could consolidate them all into one department with one website, one phone number and one mission – helping American businesses succeed.
This is a big idea. And we put a lot of thought into it. Over the past year, we spoke with folks across the government and across the country. And, most importantly, we spoke with businesses – including hundreds of small businesses – to hear what works and what doesn’t when you deal with the government. Well, we found some unsatisfied customers. And who can blame them.
Take a look at this slide. This is the system small business owners face. This is what they have to deal with if they want even the most basic answers to the most basic questions – like how to export to a new country or whether they qualify for a loan. There’s a whole host of websites, toll-free numbers and customer service centers; each offering different assistance. It’s a mess. This should be easy for small businesses. And if Congress would reinstate this authority, it would be.
We’d have one department where entrepreneurs can go from the day they come up with an idea and need a patent, to the day they start building a product and need financing for a warehouse, to the day they’re ready to export and need help breaking into new markets overseas. One department where all our trade agencies would work together to ensure businesses and workers can better export by better enforcing trade agreements. One department dedicated to helping our businesses sell their products to the 95 percent of global consumers who live beyond our shores.
With this authority, we’d help businesses grow; save businesses time; and save taxpayer dollars.
Now, this is just one example of what we can and should do. There is a real opportunity, right now, for us to fundamentally rethink, reform, and remake our government so that it can meet the demands of our time; so that it’s worthy of the American people; so that it works.
Congress needs to reinstate the authority it has given to Democratic and Republican presidents for decades. In the meantime, as long as folks are looking for work and small businesses are looking for customers, I will keep doing everything in my power to help.
As of today, I’m elevating the Small Business Administration to a cabinet-level agency. Karen Mills, who’s been doing a terrific job leading that agency, will make sure that small business owners have their own seat at the table in my Cabinet meetings.
In the coming weeks we’ll also unveil a new website – Business USA. This site will be a one-stop shop for small businesses and exporters, consolidating the information that’s right now spread across a number of government sites so that it’s all in one place that’s easy to search.
So with or without Congress, I’m going to keep at it. I’m hopeful it’s with Congress because this is an area where we can receive bipartisan support, because making our government more responsive, strategic and leaner should not be a partisan issue.
I’m going to keep fighting every day to rebuild this economy so that hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded. I’m going to keep fighting to make sure middle class families regain the security they’ve lost over the past decade. This is a make or break moment for them. It should demand action from Washington.