WASHINGTON — It was a big laugh line in President Obama's State of the Union speech: "The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater. I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."
Behind the joke was an ambitious promise to tame and reorganize segments of the federal bureaucracy. If Obama's new chief of staff, Bill Daley, wields any influence, a primary target will be the Commerce Department.
Its 38,000 employees oversee a diverse portfolio, from helping businesses and conducting the census to providing accurate weather forecasts and granting patents and trademark protection.
Daley knows the department inside and out: He ran it during the Clinton administration.
Early last month, before Obama named Daley as his top aide, a Democratic-leaning think tank that has been a source of many Obama administration policy ideas laid out a plan to streamline the Commerce Department and sharpen its focus on making U.S. businesses more competitive — the new clarion call at the White House.
Thinning the bureaucracy is a perennial quest for politicians who cast themselves as reformers.
They don't often succeed.
House Republicans led by Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995 had grand visions of eliminating the departments of Education and Energy. Vice President Al Gore got credit for a high visibility "reinventing government" program during the Clinton administration. It did trim government but did not win long-lasting institutional changes.
The last successful consolidation came after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when Congress merged 22 agencies to create the Department of Homeland Security.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., recalled an effort he undertook to eliminate 17 programs that both the Bush and Obama administrations had identified as underperforming. "I took the lowest-hanging fruit," he said. "When the rubber hit the road, it wasn't able to be implemented."
"Most federal employees have heard this before and they feel like administrations pay lip service to this," Warner said.