We can go back to talking amongst ourselves about the theory of a single food safety agency in the United States.  But in reality, the idea is now dead.

Let’s review.

On Jan. 13, President Obama announced he was asking Congress “to reinstate the authority that past presidents had, over decades, to reorganize the government.”

The President said his immediate goal was to consolidate six (business and trade) departments and agencies into one department with one website, one phone number and one mission – “helping American businesses succeed.”

On Jan. 14, Food Safety News passed along a report based on The Hagstrom Report, a respected subscription-based newsletter, that if the Obama Administration was successful in getting consolidation authority, food safety agencies would be next up for reorganization into one unit.

At the same time Food Safety News was accepting opinion-editorial contributions about how federal food safety agencies are organized, we came under pressure to pull down the original story. We were not going to do that for two reasons. First, we trust Hagstrom, and second, his reporting was largely based on comments made by Jeff Zients, then the No. 2 guy at the Office of Management and Budget in the White House. Now Zients is No. 1.

On Jan. 26, again from The Hagstrom Report, Food Safety News passed along the administration statement that it was not “confirming” that merger of the food safety agencies would be next.

In all likelihood, there won’t be “a next” because Congress is not going to give the President consolidation power in the first place. The strategy was flawed from the get-go.   

The experience in several states shows that powers of executive reorganization are best used as broadly as possible. Governors have used their executive reorganization powers to consolidate hundreds of boards, agencies and commissions. 

By focusing on a narrow band of business and trade agencies, the administration is getting little support against a broad union/business coalition that will very likely have the power to block consolidation from going through Congress.

The powerful American Meat Institute (AMI) is the latest to join 85 small, medium and large business and agricultural organizations against the Obama-proposed merger. AMI, which probably also wants to keep meat inspections in USDA, is opposing merging business and trade agencies because it fears the change would dilute the effectiveness of the U.S. Trade Representative.

The group letter AMI has signed off on picks apart the merger of business and trade agencies by focusing on the trade representative.  

“USTR’s unique and important role stems in substantial part from its position within the Executive Office of the President, lending it credibility with foreign trading partners, Congress, other U.S. government entities and private stakeholders,” the letter says. “Most developed economies have a direct counterpart to the USTR that reports to the head of government which lends the position enormous credibility.”

Those lobbying against the merger will eventually end it by stopping Congress from giving the President consolidation powers. That’s the reality.

The big mistake the Obama Administration made was going for a specific merger. The President, like many governors, should have executive reorganization powers.

Big, sweeping reorganizations have succeeded at the state level. Back in the day when the President had consolidation powers, Harry Truman was able to create a unified military command from war and navy departments that had resisted such changes since 1776.

The administration’s second mistake was to say what was next. Now that’s over.

P.S.   If FDA and FSIS truly do not want some future president or Congress re-organizing them, I suggest they do it themselves along the lines suggested by Dr. Richard Raymond, former USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety.  Raymond makes suggestion for some jurisdictional trades that would result in cleaner lines of authority for the two big food safety agencies. It is always good to avoid looking stupid.