Gore's government reform plan may be a tough sell Many proposals are not new, will cut jobs

September 05, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- When Vice President Al Gore steps into the spotlight Tuesday to remove the wraps from a hefty volume of suggestions on how to streamline the government, he will be treading a well-worn path.

Politically, the National Performance Review, as it is called, will be big. Americans have told pollsters for decades that they believe the federal government is bloated and inefficient. The Clinton administration is hoping to capitalize on this public discontent.

But the substance of Mr. Gore's recommendations -- expected to number around 800 -- may be trickier to sell. And even the vice president's supporters have already begun sounding notes of pessimistic caution.

Most of them have been here before. File cabinets on Capitol Hill are crammed with legislation that was intended to reform government programs and operations.

And at least four previous presidents have pledged to streamline the bureaucracy, only to leave programs and regulations virtually untouched by the end of their terms.

"Like a steamship in open water, the government can't be expected to turn around on a dime," said Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., chairman of the Government Operations Committee.

Officials who have been briefed on elements of the vice president's review confirmed that it includes several items included in an early draft of the report that circulated in Washington last week. Among the report's recommendations are the following:

* The traditional one-year budget would be replaced with two-year plans.

* Federal agencies would be asked to cut their regulations by 50 percent.

* Up to 12 percent of the non-postal government work force would be eliminated within the next five years.

* Dozens of regional offices, especially under the Department of Agriculture, would be closed.

* The ratio of supervisors to employees would be reduced from one manager for every seven workers as it now stands to one for every 15.

* Private companies would be allowed to compete for government work in printing and real estate management.

Members of the vice president's staff have told congressional aides that as many as 70 percent of the suggestions in the report can be achieved through executive orders; the rest would require congressional approval.

Administration officials acknowledge that some proposals stand a better chance than others. "Some of it is real, and some of it pie in the sky," said one congressional aide who attended a briefing.

But the officials say that Mr. Gore's effort will have a better shot because of Mr. Gore's involvement. By turning the project over to the vice president, President Clinton automatically awarded it status that could not have been achieved by an outside commission, they say.

That involvement will make it easier to sell the package and has already made it easier to draft, they add.

With the exception of the organization that represents middle managers, who are likely to take the biggest hit, government employee unions have mostly muffled their concerns about lost jobs. Members of Congress have also been quiet.

Union leaders say they have remained cooperative because they want to remain on the high ground rather than be written off as recalcitrant special interests. Members of Congress have adopted a similar approach.

But the turf wars have begun on matters of strategy as well as policy. Outside advisers and some aides to members of Congress said they persuaded the reform task force to scale back overly optimistic estimates of savings over a number of years that rose as high as $108 billion. But an aide to the vice president said no numbers have been settled upon.

Mr. Gore, who has said it could take eight to 10 years to put the recommendations into effect, has been holding the savings estimate close to his vest in part because he is wary of over-promoting the proposal to an audience of skeptical taxpayers.

But selling the plan will be a careful exercise. Proponents use phrases like "mid-level bureaucrats" instead of "civil servants" when they talk about what jobs will be cut. They never use the word "layoff."

Some congressional staff members have been privately assured that the administration is willing to cut jobs outright if they cannot be absorbed through attrition, retraining or buyouts. Union leaders have been told the opposite.

"We told them, 'We know you need to say something about that, but it's not going to go anywhere,' " one union leader said of the prospect of outright dismissals.

All parties have embraced the uplifting notion of changing government for the better, talking of changing "the culture of government" and undertaking "revolutionary change."

But the stakes are political -- and very high. Mr. Clinton's advisers have determined that they cannot hope to win support for a health care plan that will create yet another federal bureaucracy when few trust the bureaucracy that already exists.

"For those who believe in activist government, we have to prove that we can change this government before we can instill confidence for other things we have to do," said Al From, the director of the Democratic Leadership Council and a prime backer of the performance review.

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