Can Gore Reinvent Government?

August 22, 1993

It's the equivalent of scaling Mount Everest: Vice President Al Gore early next month will unveil his plan for "reinventing government" on the federal level. The odds of the vice president succeeding are stacked heavily against him. Rising public anger over waste and inefficiency in the bloated federal bureaucracy could prove his most potent ally.

Talk is cheap in Washington, especially when it comes to talking about reforming the government. Twelve commissions have tried do so since 1905, with little success. The last one, the Grace Commission in 1984, gave Ronald Reagan 14 volumes of details on 2,500 suggested reforms to save $424 billion. Virtually nothing came of the report.

Employee unions are ready to fight changes suggested by the Gore group. Cabinet officials have already said they will oppose certain mergers and consolidations. Federal managers cling zealously to their power. But the biggest impediment, by far, comes from Capitol Hill, home of the nation's leading turf-protectors and micromanagers.

Stop the mohair subsidy? Not while Texas congressmen are on guard. Stop the honey-bee subsidy? Not when congressmen from the Dakotas are on duty. Stop the subsidy for training beagles to sniff out brown tree snakes? Not while Hawaii's congressional delegation is around. Give managers greater flexibility to spend their budgets? Not as long as members of Congress want to nit-pick every move and run the government from the Hill.

Yet legislators may end up in an uncomfortable bind. Defending wasteful subsidies or local pork may lead to highly negative public attention for these representatives. With an election coming up next year, some will run for cover.

That's something the vice president may be counting on. His National Performance Review, a six-month audit conducted by 250 people, is nearing an end. It already is clear that he will propose $8 billion to $10 billion -- or more -- of cuts, possibly involving elimination of 100,000 federal jobs. The nine-page procurement specification for purchasing federal ash trays (all in bureaucratic gobbledygook) is on the chopping block. So are other clearly inane federal practices.

The goal of this exercise is to make government work better and cheaper. Many states have benefited from similar studies, but only when legislatures had the will to carry out the recommendations over objections from defenders of the status quo. The same could hold true in Washington.

Nearly everyone agrees the federal government is too costly and inefficient. Mr. Gore soon will detail the extent of the waste. But will the egos of congressmen allow them to give up their micromanagement of government? Do they dare oppose the vested interests? The easy part is in announcing the list of recommended changes. The hard part is in persuading Congress to let this reinvention of government proceed.

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