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Washington waste watch

January 13, 1984



Members of Congress should have a fairly easy time understanding a special report on Capitol Hill issued by the waste-hunting Grace Commission. But it won't make for happy reading.

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This week the commission turned in its final report to President Reagan - based in large part on the findings of earlier studies.

The commission estimated that the federal deficit could be cut by $424 billion over the next three years, if proper reforms and ''revenue enhancement'' programs were put in place.

But even more interesting, in the special panel study on Capitol Hill also released this week, the commission specifically faults Congress for what the commission insists is the spending of billions of dollars on needless and wasteful projects.

The panel - formally known as the President's Private Sector Survey on Cost Control - has been looking at ways to cut unnecessary federal waste. The study on Congress clearly illustrates that lawmakers have invested billions of dollars on questionable projects despite objections from various administrations (both Democratic and Republican) - and in many cases despite the objections of the very federal agencies that had to build or maintain the projects.

Lest lawmakers overly object to the treatment accorded them in the report, it should be noted that the controversial commission (made up largely of blue-chip businessmen) has trampled on many toes in Washington. It has, for example, said that taxpayers could save considerable monies by reducing benefits to federal employees. It proposed savings in the food stamp program. It argued that billions of dollars could be saved through a reorganization of veterans' programs.

But achieving the savings requires the cooperation of Congress.

Thus, the new study on Congress leans over backward not to antagonize lawmakers. It omits names and places. According to the commission, what needs to be identified is the pattern of spending involved - the nature of the pork-barrel system.

Still, the report does identify situations that could save taxpayers $7.8 billion over three years.

And it proposes steps that could generate revenues to the government of $1.1 billion over that same period.

Many lawmakers would argue that the federal projects criticized by the panel have their own justification. And in some cases the justifications may be well taken. Constitutionally, lawmakers must consider the needs of citizens in the states and congressional districts. Merely closing a facility is not always cost-effective in a long-term sense, if that same facility would have to be reopened at a later time.

How does the commission say lawmakers have wasted taxpayer dollars? It cites these examples:

* By blocking the closing of marginal military bases, despite Pentagon requests to close the facilities.

* By providing funds for questionable dams.

* By preventing federal agencies from reducing staff sizes, and blocking use of outside contractors.

* By continuing the military commissary system.

President Ford tried to phase commissaries out in the mid-'70s, but ran into the same type of opposition that greeted President Carter when he tried to curtail dams.

At a time when federal budget deficits are running in the range of $200 billion and there is a question about whether millions of Americans have enough food to live on, lawmakers would seem to have a special responsibility to weigh each expenditure of taxpayer dollars.

The Grace Commission has at least provided useful yardsticks by which to measure federal expenditures.