Grounding the traveling bureaucrat

Eyebrows are being raised to the shocked position over a report on the travel habits of federal employees. It appears that the reason most frequently cited by 26 agencies for official trips is, "Unknown." Good old "Unknown" is offered as the explanation for 26.8 percent of such forays outside of the District of Columbia, which add up, incidentally, to a total of $3 billion in expense money annually for all branches of the federal government.

This is the sort of thing that makes budget-trimmers rub their happy hands like a health salon operator faced by a 250-pounder with cake frosting still on his lips.

See? All you have to do is cut out the sloppy and the obvious and presto! -- balanced budget.

Well, not quite.

We do not pretend to know why 5,804 workers in the Small Business Administration make 181,725 trips a year. Nor can we tell you how the toilers for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation spend an average of $4,458 annually in travel.

But we do know that "unknown" is not synonymous with "unnecessary." The second most popular reason for a trip is "site visit" (25.5 percent). To our ears, that sounds even more suspicious than "unknown." What is a "site," we would certainly want to know -- not to mention, what is a "visit"?

All travel has an element of serendipity to it -- an element of "unknown." If Columbus had been strictly accurate, he would have put down "unknown" on his form, though in those days Cathay was the site to visit to shake out the government travel expenses.

"Unknown" has always been the most popular American reason for travel. What else was Daniel Boone's excuse? The frontier would not be open yet if all the long rifles and trappers had been required to write down on paper a suitable bureaucratic rationalization.

The classic westerner's excuse for drifting -- "to see what's on the other side of the hill" -- wouldn't quite make it on the standard form.

"What do you want the car for?" is the question of obtuse fathers and governments, turning all trips into guilt trips.

To ask for a cut-and-dried reason is to misunderstand the urge altogether. We believe the all-American reason for traveling is restlessness -- the simple, inadmissible desire to be somewhere else. The late S.J. Perelman, author of "Westward HA!" liked to confess that he had "sand in his shoes," hinting that his lifetime of wandering was founded on an imperative need to get away from his birthplace, Woonsocket, R.I. -- and, we hasten to add, almost any other birthplace would do.

While we're keeping score on the government, let us remind ourselves how many tax dollars are written off in the private by the "business" tip. Above all trips, Americans love the business trip -- that journey where the work ethic and the pleasure principle travel together, generally first-class. One escapes the office in the name of a higher duty. "I havem to take a trip" is the operative phrase, spoken with a beatific smile as bags are merrily thrown into the cab bound for the airport.

If employees are not allowed to take a trip now and then, they are likely to sulk at home, plotting schemes to secure for themselves an extra assistant or even an office couch that will cost more in the end than a quick hop to Sandusky.

We have no wish to give the federal agencies carte blanche to buy everybody round-trip tickets to anywhere from Dulles or National. Our point is that questions should be asked after the trip, not before. Let the clever rascals, who can always think of five plausible reasons to go, answer upon their return the following questions:

1. What did I accomplish?

2. Could I have achieved the same results by a phone call or a 15-cent (or 20 -cent) letter?

And we have one final question for the Office of Management and Budget. How many trips did their folks take in order to check out the trips of everybody else? The Inspector-General, as Gogol observed, is not unlikely to be the biggest road-man of them all.

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