Red Tape Gets Blacked Out These Days


The bureaucrat's curse. The bane of every citizen's mundane negotiations. The monster that politicians fight to slay.

Red tape.

Well, guess what? Nobody in government uses the stuff anymore. Yes, red tape is more than a metaphor, or at least it once was.

Red tape--it was actually red cloth or ribbon--was used for centuries by the British to tie up legal and official documents. Its early use in this country is cited in a document in the National Archives, which noted that three lengths were first purchased on May 15, 1786, by Charles Curtis, secretary of the Continental Congress, to keep American records tidy.

In modern times, especially, red tape has become a pervasive symbol of government's snags and snarls and inefficiency. The Oxford English Dictionary offers a more gentle definition: "excessive use or adherence to formalities."

A few examples:

* Shortly after he took office in 1981, President Ronald Reagan commended a housing commission that "found that 20% of the cost of a home is due to red tape, bureaucratic delays and government regulation."

* Shortly after President Bush took office in 1989, he too created a housing commission, "a blue ribbon commission," Bush called it, "to identify the excessive rules, regulations and red tape that add unnecessarily to the cost of housing. . . . "

* After he was elected Maryland's governor in 1986, William Donald Schaefer formed an Office of Red Tape Cutting. Irked over the slow-moving state bureaucracy--he pointed to how difficult it was to get through to the Department of Motor Vehicles as an example--Schaefer appointed a task force to "cut red tape." Schaefer held a news conference at which telephones covered in sticky red tape were snipped free.

* Sometimes red tape is a partisan problem, as when Bush called the Democrats "the party of red tape."

* But sometimes it is a bipartisan issue, as when Bush and the nation's governors pledged in a 1989 joint statement after an education summit "to swap red tape for results."

* Agriculture Secretary Edward R. Madigan recently unveiled eight pilot projects that he said are designed to make the Agriculture Department more "farmer friendly" by cutting red tape and paperwork.

But actually finding red tape to cut is not so easy.

Take Anna Marie Leone, a contract specialist with the General Services Administration--procurer of supplies for the federal government. Leone could find no recent listing for red tape in GSA stock catalogues.

She searched through the indexes of the 5-pound 1990 and 1991 references, and all she could find was a listing for "bleached cotton tape . . . herringbone and twill . . . on a spool . . . used as a stay binding in the making of clothing and other textiles." But it's not red.

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