WASHINGTON – WASHINGTON (AP) — The Minerals Management Service — well, the name anyway — now sits on the scrap heap of discarded monikers alongside ValuJet, Blackwater and Enron Field. Not that a new name makes it any easier for the Obama administration to convince a skeptical Congress that the agency will be any better at policing offshore drilling.
The new name, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement — or BOE for short — is designed to emphasize regulatory and enforcement responsibilities of the troubled agency, which is part of the Interior Department. The change comes in the wake of the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
MMS had been panned for its lax oversight of offshore drilling. A recent report by the department's inspector general said that its drilling regulators have been so close to the industry that they've accepted gifts from oil and gas companies and even negotiated to go work for the companies.
Michael R. Bromwich, the new head of the MMS — er, BOE — assured Congress that the change is much more than cosmetic.
"I think it's substantive," Bromwich said. "Regulation and enforcement have been added to the title of the agency because those elements, I think, by consensus have been lacking in the approach of the agency."
One marketing expert told The Associated Press that the Obama administration has made a mistake by changing the name at a time when the agency is still the focus of negative attention. The danger, said Kelly O'Keefe, managing director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter, is that the new name gets tarnished with the old baggage.
"If you're trying to dodge a negative situation, it is a very bad idea to do that in the middle of that negative situation," O'Keefe said. "Because what happens is the bad news isn't over — it certainly isn't for MMS or BP."
"It's really hard to pull a fake-out, to say, 'Hey, we're something different now,'" O'Keefe added. "We tend to see through that."
Or, as "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart deadpanned last week, "Are we really that stupid?"
"This isn't just a name change or branding exercise," said Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff. The new name, she said, reflects Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's mission for the agency as it undergoes reorganization. Salazar plans to break up the agency into three separate entities to eliminate conflicts of interest.
Government agencies have been changing their names since the beginning of the republic. In 1789, just a few months into its existence, the Department of Foreign Affairs became the State Department. According to the State Department website, that switch was made because the agency took over several new domestic responsibilities, such as custody of the Great Seal of the United States.
For most of its existence, the Army was known as the Department of War. In 1947, it was converted to the Department of the Army and grouped with the Navy and newly created Air Force under a new National Military Establishment, headed by the new secretary of defense. Congress changed the National Military Establishment into the Department of Defense two years later, with significantly more authority for the defense secretary.
In its 1947 report on the legislation unifying the military services, the Senate Committee on Armed Services said it had been guided by "the basic objectives of our government (1) to maintain the peace and (2) to remove the causes of war. In support of those objectives it is essential that there be established a structure fully capable of safeguarding our national security promptly and effectively."
Harvey Sapolsky, retired director of security studies and professor emeritus of public policy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said ridding the term "war" back then was not about making the department sound less bellicose.
"We might see differences in 'war' and 'defense,' but I don't think they did," he said. Instead, the change was motivated by efficiency, coordination and creating an Air Force.
Three decades after the Department of War was no more, the government excised "welfare" from another department's name. In 1980, the new Department of Education was born, while the old Health, Education and Welfare Department became the Health and Human Services Department. "Welfare" was nowhere to be found in the title of either department — 16 years before President Bill Clinton signed legislation to fulfill a campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it."
Sometimes the rebranding can mean adding a key word. Last week, President Barack Obama signed an executive order renaming the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. The new name, the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, was made to emphasize healthy eating habits, dovetailing with first lady Michelle Obama's campaign against childhood obesity. The council has a jazzed-up website, with photos, videos and the words "You're it. Get fit!" at the top.
That wasn't even its first name change. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the council in 1956, he called it the President's Council on Youth Fitness.
When it comes to MMS, Stewart questioned the need for a new name.
"Why don't we just rename the water in the Gulf 'H20 Black'?" he asked.