The Trump administration plans to merge and rebrand several departments that conservatives have historically not been very fond of — or at least, they plan to talk about it. Several outlets report that after a months-long review of potential ways to shrink the federal government, on Thursday the Trump administration will propose merging the Education and Labor departments.
The Education Department handles federal student loans, the distribution of K-12 education funding, and enforced federal civil rights laws in public schools. The Labor Department, which is much larger, produces economic data, runs programs to train workers, and enforces minimum wage and occupational safety laws.
The New York Times reports that the plan also involves migrating many social safety-net programs into a “megadepartment” that would replace the Department of Health and Human Services. The department would possibly get a new name with “welfare” in the title, as part of an effort to further stigmatize programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), housing aid, and Medicaid, making them easier to cut.
The megadepartment, and efforts to eliminate agencies, are not unprecedented. From 1953 to 1979, most of the nation’s social welfare and economic support programs were run through the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Republicans even made a failed attempt to merge the Education and Labor departments, along with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, during the Clinton administration.
Seth Harris, deputy labor secretary under President Obama, told the Wall Street Journal that the merger proposal is a “solution in search of a problem,” as there isn’t much overlap between Education and Labor. “There won’t be savings if the new department has the same mandates and programs the two need to carry out,” he said.
While there may be some reshuffling of responsibilities, it seems unlikely that a major federal government overhaul is imminent. Significant changes would require congressional approval, and members of Congress probably aren’t willing to embark on such a difficult and controversial task months before the midterms.
So why even bring this up now? Because it allows President Trump to say he’s trying to make the conservative dream of reducing the size of the federal government a reality. Also, several advocates suggested to Education Week that this is just an effort to distract from the controversy over the Trump administration separating families at the border.
“The Trump administration’s plans to reorganize the federal government, including the possible radical merger of two federal agencies, the departments of Education and Labor among other changes, are at best ill-conceived and poorly timed and at worst are an attempt to distract the American public from the humanitarian crisis he created along the U.S.-Mexico border,” said National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García in a statement.
It does seem quite convenient, but there’s been talk of a reorganization proposal for some time, and Politico reported several weeks ago that the push to consolidate welfare programs was coming. And besides, if Trump wanted to distract us, he’d do something much zanier than combing two agencies that the public rarely thinks about — like announcing a new military branch devoted to fighting wars in space.