WASHINGTON -- All the political wise guys hereabouts are pooh-poohing Vice President Al Gore's extensive report on how the federal government can be reformed -- "reinvented" is the current hyperbole -- by folding, spindling and sometimes mutilating existing functions and agencies.
The claim that taxpayers can be saved a not inconsiderable $108 billion over a five-year period if all the recommendations are carried out is being widely cast as another pipe dream, in the class of Jimmy Carter's pledge in 1976 to reduce the federal bureaucracy from 1,900 agencies to 200, or the Grace Commission recommendations under Ronald Reagan, both of which came to little.
The chances are that nothing like $108 billion will be shaved from the federal budget, but politically speaking that is almost beside the point. While voters have always griped about the cost of the federal establishment, there was not the hue and cry against it in either the Carter or Reagan years that exists today, fanned to no small degree by Ross Perot.
President Clinton's decision to turn his vice president loose on trying to do something credible about bloated government puts him on the side of the angels, where he hasn't found himself very often in his first White House year. As a president who reneged on talk of a middle-class tax cut and was tagged by the Republicans, inaccurately, as raising income taxes on all Americans, Clinton had to come up with another way to cast himself as sympathetic to Joe Sixpack, and this is as good as any.
It's pretty clear that whatever the Gore proposals accomplish, it won't be enough to satisfy Perot, who has the luxury of never having to say precisely what he would cut or eliminate, let alone do it. So his baying is certain to continue and will be persuasive with many of his followers.
But Clinton's biggest problems in achieving the Gore recommendations will be within the bureaucracy itself and in Congress, many of whose prerogatives will be threatened in the appropriations process. The major proposal to abandon yearly budget-writing in favor of a two-year look is certain to run up against strong opposition from powerful congressional committee chairmen who like the current system.
Both the federal bureaucracy and Congress, however, are currently held in lower esteem than is the presidency, thanks to the seemingly endless stories of bureaucratic waste, incompetence and stupidity emanating from Washington and the perceived greed of the good legislators who vote themselves pay raises in periods of economic uncertainty on Main Street.
If Congress particularly digs its heels in against the Clinton administration's efforts to streamline some agencies, twin others and wipe out a number of time-honored federal subsidy programs, the president can do some effective finger-pointing. And it just may be that members of Congress, fully aware of the low state of public confidence in the institution in which they serve, will think twice before they dismiss some of the Clinton proposals or try to scuttle them outright.
Clinton, no stranger to political hyperbole himself, says the Gore report is "an American imperative" without partisan coloration that, unlike its predecessors, "will not gather dust in a warehouse." The fact that its implementation is being left in the hands of the vice president, a man with obvious further political ambitions of his own, should ensure tenacious lobbying and follow-up for as long as Gore remains so personally involved.
Wars on waste and abuse in government usually are the stuff of making voters' eyes glaze over. They have heard it all so many times before. But last summer, as Clinton and Gore rolled across the land on their spectacularly successful campaign bus tours, one thing that seemed to stir audiences was their stated insistence that things would change if they were elected. Clinton's erratic start has cooled voter expectations, but the Gore proposals to "reinvent government" provide an opportunity demonstrate that these two earnest young politicians at least intend to try.
And the tougher the opposition in Congress and in the bureaucracy, the better it may make them look on Main Street.