Clinton opens war on waste Gore presents battle plans

September 08, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon and Karen Hosler | Carl M. Cannon and Karen Hosler,Washington BureauWashington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- For six months, Vice President Al Gore collected horror stories about the outrageous inefficiency of the federal government. They ranged from the pedantic specifications for government-purchased ashtrays to employees paid to monitor the weather at airports no longer in use.

That was the easy part. Yesterday, Mr. Gore and President Clinton began the hard part: doing something about it.

"This government is broke, and we intend to fix it," Mr. Clinton said on the South Lawn of the White House as he was presented the report on "reinventing government" by Mr. Gore.

As they talked, the two stood in front of a pair of forklifts loaded with federal regulations.

"Mr. President, if you want to know why government doesn't work, look behind you," the vice president said. "Those forklifts hold copies of budget rules, procurement rules and the personnel code. The personnel code alone weighs in at over 1,000 pounds."

From Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 to Jimmy Carter in 1977 to Ronald Reagan in 1984, presidents have sought -- without much success -- to reign in the monster that Mr. Reagan often referred to as the "puzzle palaces on the Potomac."

Conceding that he is but the latest in a long-line of presidents driven to distraction by bureaucratic waste, Mr. Clinton vowed: "Make no mistake: This is one report that will not gather dust in a warehouse."

On the surface, there is little reason to believe that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore can succeed where so many others have failed.

Mr. Gore's National Performance Review, for instance, found little in the way of specific suggestions that haven't been made before: His 168-page report, titled "Creating a Government that Works Better & Costs Less," even points out that one key proposal -- putting the government on a two-year budgetary cycle -- was introduced as legislation 16 years ago by then-California Rep. Leon E. Panetta, now head of the Clinton budget office.

In addition, almost every proposed cut of outdated government programs identified in Mr. Gore's report had been part of several previous studies, including the Reagan-era Grace Commission report.

But Mr. Gore's approach was different from those of his predecessors. And Mr. Clinton's timing appears to be impeccable.

"Five years ago, this wouldn't have been possible," said David Osborne, co-author of "Reinventing Government," a bible to the Gore task force. "There are some moments in history when it's possible to do things like this."

Mr. Osborne as well as senior administration officials believe the 1992 election, the Ross Perot phenomenon, the skyrocketing federal debt and the demands the public is making on Congress all create an environment in which Mr. Gore's report will flourish.

Crucial distinctions

In addition, there were two crucial distinctions between Mr. Gore's report and previous reports. First, it was done not by business types openly skeptical of government, but by Democrats in government who believe in government. Secondly, Gore gathered his horror stories from government workers themselves, like the one about the $600 hearing aid for a deaf government employee who could have bought it at a store for $300.

"The best ideas come from the men and women at the bottom rungs on the ladder," Mr. Gore said. "Federal employees want to help bring about a government that works better and costs less."

Mr. Gore didn't search for huge globs of government fat lying around waiting to be lopped off -- he doesn't think it's that easy. Instead, he immersed himself in un-sexy topics such as procurement regulations, personnel procedures, computer technologies being used by the government, and he concluded that the government could do the same work with fewer people and do it better by modernizing and streamlining itself.

In so doing, the administration has managed to avoid the rancor of public-employee unions. Administration officials said the first big step in implementing the recommendations would be a conference with the leaders of those unions next month.

And though some on Mr. Gore's staff were saying late last week that 70 percent of the reforms could be done without congressional action, officials conceded yesterday that most of the important changes probably could not occur without congressional acquiescence or approval.

Enthusiastic reaction

The reaction was generally enthusiastic on Capitol Hill, even among Republicans. But there was much confusion and disagreement about how those elements of the reform plan that require congressional approval should be handled.

Some Republicans and deficit hawks in the Democratic ranks were urging speedy action on the proposals, which they believe should be packaged by the White House in one or two sweeping bills that members would find hard to oppose. Others, particularly those who have been closely involved in the oversight of government agencies, were urging a more cautious approach.

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