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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Campaign Funny Business

An ad from the Romney campaign mocks President Obama’s proposal to create a “Secretary of Business,” but misrepresents the president’s proposal.

The ad says that “his solution to everything is to add another bureaucrat.” But in fact, Obama’s plan actually seeks to consolidate more than a half dozen agencies, trim the federal workforce by as many as 1,000 to 2,000 employees and save $3 billion. In short, it specifically seeks to reduce bureaucracy.

According to the narrator in the video: “Barack Obama says he may appoint a Secretary of Business. His solution to everything is to add another bureaucrat. Why not have a president who actually understands business? … Mitt Romney understands business, knows how to create jobs and get our economy moving.”

The ad is a response to a comment that President Obama made in an Oct. 29 interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show (ironically in the context of talking about initiatives he thinks could garner bipartisan support). As the full comments make clear, Obama’s proposal to create a secretary of business is part of a plan to consolidate several federal programs in order to eliminate some bureaucracy.

Obama: I’ve said that I want to consolidate a whole bunch of government agencies. We should have one secretary of business, instead of nine different departments that are dealing with things like getting loans to SBA [the Small Business Administration] or helping companies with exports. There should be a one-stop shop. Now, the reason we haven’t done that is not because of some big ideological difference. It has to do with Congress talking a good game about wanting to streamline government, but being very protective about not giving up their jurisdiction over various pieces of government.

Romney reiterated the campaign ad’s jab in a speech in Roanoke, Va., on Nov. 1 (later passed around by the Romney campaign in a press release), saying that Obama is “trying to figure out some way to suggest he’s got some new ideas” and that he “came up with an idea last week, which is he’s going to create the department of business.”

“We don’t need a secretary of business to understand business,” Romney said. “We need a president who understands business, and I do.”

It’s not true that Obama “came up with [the] idea last week.” Back in January, Obama called on Congress to reinstate the president’s authority to reorganize the government and announced that his first action with that power would be to consolidate six agencies — U.S. Department of Commerce’s core business and trade functions, the Small Business Administration, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency — into one department “to promote competitiveness, exports and American business.”

“For too long, overlapping responsibilities among agencies have made it harder, rather than easier, for our small businesses to interact with their government,” according to a White House press release. “Those redundancies have also led to unnecessary waste and duplication.”

The White House plan came after a March 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office — titled “Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue” — found a number of redundant and overlapping government programs including 52 programs in four agencies — Commerce, HUD, SBA and USDA  — that can fund “entrepreneurial efforts.” (page 42)

The White House says it expects its plan will save $3 billion over 10 years, with 1,000 to 2,000 positions eliminated through attrition.

In February, Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner introduced the Reforming and Consolidating Government Act of 2012.

“Any plan a president proposes under this legislation must decrease the number of executive agencies and result in cost savings,” Lieberman told the Washington Post in March.

Obama’s plan got at least some bipartisan support. The Washington Post story quoted Republican Sen. Tom Coburn as saying that he was “fully supporting the president’s idea.” Nevertheless, while hearings were held on the bill, it stalled in committee.

Some may take issue with Obama’s plan to add another Cabinet-level position for a secretary of business — as the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial board did on Oct. 29 — but to mock it as simply “add[ing] another bureaucrat,” ignores the very intent of Obama’s plan, which seeks to consolidate redundant government programs and shrink government bureaucracy.

— Robert Farley