Last week, thanks to Al Gore, we received a much-needed refresher course in the Rube Goldberg contraption called American government. Our wooden vice president (who, sources say, underwent an emergency sense-of-humor implant before appearing on “Late Show With David Letterman”) announced his plan to “reinvent government.”
It’s a bold plan, an ambitious plan--and because this is government we’re talking about here--an incredibly boring, hard-to-follow and probably doomed plan.
But that didn’t stop Howdy Doo . . . I mean Al Gore from getting out there and selling that plan. Like a human Veg-O-Matic, Gore sliced, diced and julienned our hulking federal bureaucracy--on “Larry King Live,” C-SPAN, “The Today Show,” “Donahue,” “MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.”
Slice! There go 252,000 federal jobs. Chop! Out with the 10,000-page personnel code and its 18-level pay structure. Hack! Goodby wool and mohair subsidies. An estimated $108 billion in savings over the next five years.
But even a human Veg-O-Matic has his limits. Gore was forced to leave a few ballooning inefficiencies intact--such as the $120 million-a-year Utterly Useless Helium Reserve, which has a particularly potent benefactor in Congress. (Oink if you love pork barrel, Al!)
Anyway, thanks to Gore, I have been staring the past few days at a flow chart of the federal government. I wanted to see just how vast and unwieldy it has become.
The flow chart is a neatly ordered progression of boxes containing familiar as well as incomprehensible and/or bizarre descriptions of branches, offices, councils, agencies, bureaus, etc. I found it in a thick paperback called “The United States Government Manual 1992/93,” which is to insomnia what penicillin is to pneumonia.
The top box of the flow chart--the box from which all else flows--is labeled, naturally, “Hillary Clinton.”
The top box says, “Sex and Money.”
Sorry. I just didn’t want you to fall asleep.
The top box says, “The Constitution,” with little black lines flowing into boxes encapsulating “Legislative Branch,” “Executive Branch” and “Judicial Branch.” (Subtitled: The Congress, the President and the Supreme Court of the United States.)
If you are like most adult Americans (a quarter of whom we learned last week are functionally illiterate, most of the rest of whom move their lips when they read), your familiarity with the flow of federal government probably ends there.
What do you suppose comes next?
The annoying, Kafka-esque IRS? The annoying, Kafka-esque Social Security system?
Next come the 14 departments whose secretaries form the President’s Cabinet: agriculture, commerce, defense, education, energy, health and human services, housing and urban development, interior, justice, labor, state, transportation, treasury and veterans affairs.
Below those boxes is a huge box filled with tiny print. This is a list of the “independent establishments and government corporations"--FCC, FTC, NASA, NLRB, TVA, SEC, USIA and so on. I have no idea what comes next, because frankly, I dozed off.
Which is precisely the problem confronting the Man from REGO. (Sounds like a spaghetti sauce; stands for “REinventing GOvernment.”) How to make streamlining the bureaucracy as exciting to the rest of the country as it is to the Clintons and Gores? How to educate the populace about the plan without putting them all to sleep?
(You can practically hear David Gergen in the wings: “Find a symbol, Al, a symbol!”)
And so the vice president has fastened onto the lowly ashtray as a symbol of government waste and inefficiency. On talk shows far and wide, he has trumpeted the cumbersome procurement code that devotes nine pages to “the precise dimensions, color, polish and markings required for simple glass ashtrays.”
Surely, we can get behind this one, shake our heads, make some jokes. Nine pages on how to pick ashtrays? Give us a break! (Even though, the most important question goes begging: Why is the federal government procuring ashtrays anyway, since smoking has been outlawed in all federal buildings?)
I guess I’m rooting for the REGO-meister. I like the idea of saving money, of getting rid of pointless regulation, of simplifying government. But like most Americans, hearing about it just makes me want to nap.
Somebody wake me up when my taxes go down.