Pentagon Has No Corner on Waste : There's Excess of Flab in Spending for Civilian Programs, Too

Ernest Conine is a Times editorial writer

President Reagan's budget is under heavy fire for supposedly proposing to channel unlimited funds to an already bloated Pentagon while putting widows, orphans and other unfortunate folk on short rations.

There is a disturbing amount of truth in the criticism. The President's refusal to consider either higher taxes or defense spending cuts to help bring the budget deficit under control is indefensible.

If an uncontrolled deficit results in permanent damage to this country's economic base, the effect on true national security will be far greater than the cancellation of a couple of expensive weapon systems.

However, this doesn't change the fact that the Administration is right on target with its insistence that if Congress is at all serious about controlling federal spending, it must address itself to the many billions of dollars in accumulated fat and corruption in domestic programs.

The Heritage Foundation, which sees itself as Reagan's ideological guardian, tells us that the President's strategy is to focus the federal government's efforts on genuinely national responsibilities (such as defense) while returning to the states, cities and private sector the functions that appropriately reside with them.

"Quite properly," the conservative group says, "the Administration has generally rejected across-the-board freezes which would lock in federal programs that have no place at the federal level."

Some of the proposed applications of these principles, however, are either unwise or unacceptable in a responsible democratic society.

Take the call for substantially higher admission fees to recreation areas. Most people will not share the Heritage Foundation's umbrage at the fact that "a family of four can drive into the Grand Canyon National Park for $2, while the same family would pay at least 10 times that cost to enter the typical amusement park." The parks are a national heritage, not to be confused with Magic Mountain.

It makes no sense, either, to terminate the Export-Import Bank's subsidized loans to overseas buyers of U.S. goods and services at a time when other countries are using even juicier loans to take business away from American exporters and jobs away from American workers.

There are many such examples. But they are outweighed by the cases where the Administration in fact is right in its call for drastic cuts in spending for programs that no longer make sense.

Taxpayer-subsidized electric power is a prime example. The Rural Electrification Administration was created in the midst of the Depression, when only 12% of U.S. farmers had electricity and even fewer had telephones. Its program of low-interest financing succeeded marvelously. Today 99% of all farmers have electricity and 95% have telephones. The Reagan team sensibly proposes to phase out the REA, at a saving of $1.8 billion over the next three years alone.

Even larger savings of $2.5 billion could be realized by congressional approval of Reagan's proposal to raise interest rates to market levels on loans to the Bonneville Power Administration and other big federal power-generating complexes.

The Administration figures that it could achieve a three-year saving of almost $1.7 billion by imposing user fees on commercial shippers to defray the cost of harbor and inland-waterway projects.

The family-size farm is worth preserving for the sake of the country's social and economic health. But, while temporary government aid is justified to prevent mass farm bankruptcies, you can't fault the Administration's proposal to save $16 billion over the next three years by cutting crop-price supports and imposing ceilings on payments to wealthy farmers. (The federal government spent more in 1983 on farm-support programs than the entire net income of U.S. farmers.)

An efficient national highway transportation network is clearly in the national interest. But there are abuses. It makes no sense for federal taxpayers to foot 90% of the bill for the $2-billion Westway highway project in Manhattan, including a 93-acre waterfront park and other goodies, while contributing little to the maintenance of existing interstate roads. The Administration proposes to save $2.4 billion by tightening up.

The most sentimental train buff has to concede that Amtrak is a failed experiment. On a trip from Phoenix to Los Angeles, for example, the rail passenger pays $66 while the federal government pays $214. Closing down Amtrak would save an estimated $2.2 billion in three years.

The Reagan people are catching a lot of flak for their proposal to save $15 billion by abolishing the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Economic Development Administration, ending general revenue sharing with the states, eliminating Urban Development Action and Community Service grants, and reducing funds for community development projects.

Maybe the Administration does go too far. The taxpayer, however, should consider the debilitating effect of the pork-barrel process on such programs. In order to win congressional approval in the first place, legislators from needy areas had to buy the votes of colleagues from not-so-needy communities by including them in at an enormous waste of taxpayer money.

In 1983 oil-rich Houston got $23 million in community development money, despite a surplus in the municipal budget. Greenwich, Conn., with a median income of $35,000, pocketed $700,000.

Developers in Detroit received $19 million in urban-development action money to build a housing development with rents ranging from $450 to $1,500 a month.

Beverly Hills, one of the nation's richest communities, was able to cut itself in for $200,000 in revenue-sharing funds. Communities have used the federal largess to pay for pool tables, bridle paths, tennis courts and state and local salaries--at the expense of not just their own taxpayers but also those in other, less-blessed, communities.

The spotlight has justifiably been focused on overly generous military pensions. But how about federal civilian employees? They can retire with full benefits at age 55 if they have 30 years' service; their pensions, moreover, are periodically adjusted for inflation. In the private sector, full benefits are rarely available before age 65, and only a small fraction of retirees get cost-of-living adjustments.

The Administration says that it could save $4 billion in three years by raising the age of full retirement to 65 and taking other modest steps that would still leave future government retirees better off than their private-industry counterparts.

The list of possible cuts goes on and on. As the late Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois used to say, take a billion dollars here and a billion there, and pretty soon you are talking about real money. That is as true on the civilian side of the government as it is on the military side.

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