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Bureaucrats Cringe as Budget-Cutters Act on Rhetoric : Congress: Downsizing threats come and go, but this time lawmakers seem serious. The House has voted to eliminate more than 200 programs.

August 22, 1995|MARLENE CIMONS and JENNIFER CORBETT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — In the bowels of the federal bureaucracy, the worker bees have heard it all before: threats by politicians to dismantle hosts of federal programs and slash the size of the government's work force.

President Ronald Reagan promised to do it. So did President Jimmy Carter before him. Even President Clinton made such noises. But none was able to take much more than a nick out of the federal monolith.

So when similar rumblings rolled across Capitol Hill after the Republicans took charge this year, nobody in the bureaucracy seemed very alarmed. The conventional wisdom: Politicians come and go, but government programs go on forever.

Maybe not. In a dozen federal spending bills for the next fiscal year, the House made good its threats. It voted to eliminate more than 200 programs, from helping poor people pay their energy bills ($1 billion a year) to building a technical institute for the deaf ($150,000).

After a long period of denial within the bureaucracy, the message is only just beginning to sink in.

"People said: 'This can't be happening. Surely Congress will come to their senses,' " said Sheila Cooper, a Seneca Indian who works with the Education Department's $81-million Indian education program, which is among those slated by the House for extinction.

The House spending bills struck the bureaucracy like so many lightning bolts, even though there were early storm warnings. Late last year, even before the new GOP-controlled Congress was sworn in, incoming House Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.) was quite explicit about what he expected: If a program cannot be justified, kill it. If a program is of dubious value, look for ways to trim it substantially, if not eliminate it. He has been as good as his word.

"We've made hundreds of eliminations in an effort to streamline duplicative programs and cut spending," Livingston said last month as his committee completed action on its 1996 spending bills. "We think it's time American taxpayers pay less and get more for what they pay for."

Now the managers of the endangered programs, along with those across the country who benefit from the programs, are placing their faith in the Senate to reverse the House, as it has already begun to do.

That would leave the final spending decisions to House-Senate conference committees. And in the end, President Clinton could veto the bills.

"The process is not over yet," said Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families, part of the Health and Human Services Department, which stands to lose a fistful of programs. "President Clinton already has threatened to veto our appropriations bill because of these kinds of cuts, and we're counting on that."

Not everyone is. Vicki Shepard, assistant to Fernando Torres-Gil, head of the Aging Administration, has only been in Washington two years, and she said that the budget-cutting fever in Congress "scares me."

"Everything that happens in Congress is being taken very seriously," Shepard said. "I hear a lot of feedback about how frightened people are. We used to feel that some white knight would come through, but there's no sense of that this time."

Cooper, who came to the Washington headquarters of the Native American education program in 1993 after working for years in the field on that and related efforts, is seething. "I did not come to Washington to see the end of Indian education," she said.

But she is gradually becoming resigned to her fate. As one of the last hired, she figures to be one of the first to be fired. The Education Department management has said it will try to make room for as many people as possible whose programs are being pulled out from under them, but Cooper understands that there is a limit to how much the agency can do on that score.

Due to federal civil service rules, the bureaucrats who will lose their jobs are not necessarily the ones whose programs vanish. In many cases, senior government workers whose jobs are eliminated will bump employees elsewhere in the bureaucracy, creating a cascade in which many jobs could turn over for every one that is lost.

The anxiety permeating the civil service is not confined to Washington. Out in the field, where federal workers are less likely to find new jobs very easily, workers are nervous.

Employees at the Delaware River Basin Commission in Trenton, N.J., for example, worry about who among them will be laid off. The commission manages water resources in the Delaware River Valley region, which includes New York City. The House voted to eliminate the program; the Senate approved another year at its current funding level of $487,000.

New York Gov. George Pataki had threatened to cut off state funding but changed his mind after the governors of the other three states in the commission pleaded with him.

"I don't think any state or federal program is above scrutiny," said Gerald Hansler, the commission's executive director. "But Gov. Pataki had a $5-billion [state] deficit and had to make cuts, and he supported us."

Similarly, the Tennessee Valley Authority's environmental research center in Muscle Shoals, Ala., was "zeroed out" by the House.

"It certainly sent a shock wave through here," said Ronald Ritschard, its vice president and senior scientist, who, along with the center's 280 employees, is pinning his hopes on the Senate. The Senate treated the office more kindly, keeping the center at its current $25-million level.

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