On Reinventing Government: Hope and Skepticism


Washington. -- Are we so desperate to "streamline" government that we are willing to fatten up "Big Brother" by creating a behemoth police agency where the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are folded into the FBI?

I remember the grotesque abuses of power by the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, so someone is going to have to show me great gains in law-enforcement efficiency, and huge savings of money, before I will endorse this placing of greater police power in the hands of one agency, or one man.

Are we about to say that maintaining U.S. Information Agency libraries abroad was just a Cold War strategy, and that we now should close such libraries in "developed and emerging" countries? Wouldn't this conflict with the recently stated U.S. objective of promoting democracy around the world?

Those are a few of many questions to be answered as the nation responds to the 800 recommendations put forth by Vice President Gore to reduce, modernize and make efficient the federal government.

There are two reactions to Mr. Gore's National Performance Review that seem to be universal:

* First, hope. Any serious effort to reduce the federal bureaucracy, by 252,000 jobs and $40 billion or more, must be applauded. It is apparent to almost everyone that federal staffs are bloated and many costly programs are not needed.

* Second, skepticism. Some of us are old enough to remember Lyndon Johnson turning out lights at the White House and numerous presidents naming committees and commissions, supposedly to wipe out waste, reduce staffs, save money. But government has grown by great leaps, with White House and congressional staffs becoming obscene examples of our burgeoning bureaucracy.

A great first step for President Clinton in proving that he means to make serious cuts would be for him to tell Americans the precise truth about the number of people on the official White House payroll and how many people are "detailed" to the White House from other departments and agencies. He would then give us a play-by-play as he reduces the White House staff.

A major flaw in the Gore proposal is that while it would mandate cuts in civil-service jobs it does not propose cuts in the number of political appointees. Much of the bloat arises from the egos of political appointees who think their prestige grows with the number of people working for them.

That's one reason why we have umpteen bureaucrats in Washington and federal offices the world over who mostly attend staff meetings and write memos responding to someone else's memo.

I suspect that the Gore group shied away from reductions of political appointees because they know that every political employee has a protecting godfather in the White House, on Capitol Hill or in the top echelons of some Democratic governor's office. That's one reason why it is hard to fire people in the Washington bureaucracy.

And if every political employee has one benefactor, most costly programs have a constituency of thousands. Every member of Congress is going to raise questions such as I raised to start this column -- questions that in many cases will deserve serious debate. Other questions will be designed simply to protect a status quo.

As with health care, gays in the military, the North American Free Trade Agreement and other issues, the Clinton administration has embraced a mountain of headaches with this plan to cut government.

But can anyone really fault Messrs. Clinton and Gore for daring to try things that sometimes seem to range from undoable to impossible?

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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