The Vice President's Ashtray

Al Gore is showing me this ashtray. It is a standard, regulation federal "ash receiver, tobacco, desk type" and Gore has 10 pages of regulations to prove it. He flips through the specifications, giggling. "Can you believe this?" he says. "It's incredible. This is what you have to do if you want to sell the government an ashtray...Now, here's my favorite. This is the specification for how you test it." You put the ashtray on a plank, "a maple plank. It has to be maple, 44.5 millimeters thick." And you hit it with a steel punch "point ground to a 60 percent included angle" and a hammer. "The specimen should break into a small number of irregularly shaped pieces, not greater in number than 35." Gore is losing it now, bellylaughing. "But wait! Now we get to the specification of the pieces." To be counted as regulation shards, they must be "6.4 millimeters or more, on any three of its adjacent edges..."

And so on. "I've got some other interesting stuff," be says. Gore's office, once a repository of enviro-clutter, is becoming the Museum of the American Bureaucracy. There is a photo of piles of books, 1,088 pounds of them--the federal regulations for hiring and firing employees. There is a very expensive steam trap. There is a gray woolen glove finer from the Korean War. "Making sure we had enough of these was the rationale for the federal mohair subsidy," he says. "It costs $190 million a year."

Gore and his staff have spent the past six months scouring the government for silliness. They have sent SWAT teams into each of the agencies. He has conducted town meetings for federal employees, a mix of stand-up comedy ("Can anybody give me an example of a really crazy federal regulation?") and encounter group ("How many of you believe it's too bard to terminate a federal employee for just cause?"). The vice president, in his inimitable fashion, has become obsessed. The product of his obsession--the National Performance Review (also known as the "reinventing government" study)--will be released on Sept. 7. It will contain a host of recommendations--not just reform of the procurement, personnel and budget systems but also specific programs that should be canceled or merged. It could save $6 billion to $8 billion per year (a similar effort in 1991 saved $4 billion in Texas alone).

But only if it is implemented--and, the received wisdom says, these sorts of government-reform studies never get implemented. Still, Gore may have a chance to beat the odds. After the budget agony--and the promise of more cuts to come--his work seems the next logical step. With the federal bureaucracy nearing a state of surreal inertial thrombosis, some sort of rescue operation would probably have been required soon in any case. A quarter century of divided government has meant that everything has had to be spelled out (the Congress and the executive branch didn't trust each other, so they left little to chance); the rules have grown incomprehensibly literal. Creativity is not encouraged. And the money wasted has become truly embarrassing-Gore has stories of $1,500 laptop computers routinely purchased for $3,500 (well, not routinely: in one case, 23 different officials had to approve), $3 notebooks bought for $6, and so on. These are not isolated cases; they are how the system works.

There seems, for once, the political will--and the possibility of a clever legislative mechanism--to make the necessary changes. Last week the Senate's Governmental Affairs Committee proposed a commission, similar to the recent defense base-closing board, to review Gore's recommendations and package them into a single piece of legislation, relatively immune from the predations of committee chairmen (who usually pick such things apart). There is a good chance that this idea will receive bipartisan, maybe even tripartisan, support. Bob Dole is desperately seeking something not to be nasty about and, sources say, may endorse Gore's proposals--if they really take a bite out of the bureaucracy. There's also Ross Perot, who was a fan of the Texas performance review and has called Gore to offer encouragement. Moderate Democrats like Bob Kerrey have long favored a drastic housecleaning. Which leaves only...the rest of the Democratic Party, especially its most powerful panjandrums, as potential opponents.

And it leaves Clinton with a dilemma. During the campaign--early on, before he became a message zombie--he often said that a Democrat would succeed as president only if he convinced the public he wasn't going to waste its money. The past six months have proved him right. If Clinton had taken Gore's effort as his own, if he had made a crusade of the ashtrays and personnel rules and mohair subsidies that render the government ridiculous--if he had made good management his maxim--he might have built the credibility needed to ask for new taxes and spending (or found enough savings to make some of his taxes irrelevant). But he cast his lot with the very people--the callous, corrupt, cowardly congressional leaders--most likely to torpedo a real reform effort. Worse, he allowed them to define the limits of the possible.

So the president has a choice. He can delay or submerge Gore's report (as some Hillarinistas want, to clear the decks for health reform). He can give the appearance of support, but stick with his congressional pals and allow them to gut it, as they did his budget plan. Or he can take a flier on a new, moderate, bipartisan coalition that might actually get the job done. The last will require courage and confrontation. He might lose, but it would be a strong loss, one that clarified the president's convictions and identified the real enemies of progress-as opposed to last week's "victory," which left the sour residue of weakness and presidential desperation.