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Thinking the Unthinkable : In a day of downsizing, the notion of shrinking the federal government acquires a new shine

September 08, 1993

If the nation's largest organizations, public or private, were placed on a list according to cash flow, the top three would be mere departments of the federal government: (1) Health and Human Services, (2) Defense and (3) Treasury. Failed past efforts to bring such behemoths down to size--the Hoover Commission, the Grace Commission and a long list of less honorable failures--prompt skepticism about new efforts, including Vice President Al Gore's 200-page proposal, unveiled Tuesday under the title "From Red Tape to Results: Creating a Government That Works Better and Costs Less." Can he succeed where they failed?

Maybe. Gore's is a proposal for less government coming from a Democratic administration. On past occasions, the Democrats were usually the resistance. This time, if the vice president's own party gives him its support, then opposition can only come from the Republicans, some of whom were tying themselves in knots Tuesday trying not to join Gore's effort to join them.

Proof of the Administration's sincerity will come soon enough: President Clinton and Gore say they mean to begin immediately to implement those recommendations that do not require congressional approval, and they have every political reason to do so. Savings estimated at $12.6 billion for fiscal 1995, not to speak of a whopping $108 billion in savings by the century's end, could surely make somebody's political fortune.

Rather than from the Republicans, opposition is likely to come from a host of interest groups and interested individuals, not least from the quarter of a million government employees whose positions would be eliminated by attrition or otherwise (layoffs are not ruled out). Facing the federal employee groups, however, and arming the Administration will be a changing public mood. This mood arises not from a public conversion to the view that former President Ronald Reagan expressed in an inaugural address: "Government is not the solution . . . government is the problem." That statement is ultimately as indefensible as "Business is not the solution . . . business is the problem." Both the public and the private sector will be with us forever.

The change arises rather from the country's experience of mass layoffs in companies like General Motors and IBM. Many were left unemployed. But many others benefited from the strengthening of companies, and, more important, all parties to these huge changes--the short-term losers as well as the short-term winners--know that organizational downsizing \o7 can \f7 be done. Think of Health and Human Services and Defense as just two somewhat larger corporations and suddenly the thought that they too can become smaller and more efficient becomes thinkable.

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