WASHINGTON — ROSS PEROT'S presidential campaign is over - for now - but his crusade to clean up government is charging ahead like a Texas longhorn.
The Perot message: Government must be reformed immediately. High-cost federal programs must be cut. New programs supported by President Clinton must be deferred. The budget must be balanced. Special interests must be checked. Jobs must be created.
The Dallas billionaire has treated President Clinton and his new presidency gently for a few weeks, but now he is hardening his message. Clinton's economic plan "would add a trillion dollars to the debt during his first four years," Mr. Perot told a television interviewer March 2. "If that's true, that's not a good plan. That's how much [debt] we added during the Bush years."
Federal budget problems are not going to be solved until the system is reformed and government is put back into the hands of the people, Perot insists. In testimony prepared for a congressional committee on March 2, he suggested tough action on:
* Foreign lobbyists. Get rid of them "completely."
* Domestic lobbyists. Accept nothing from them, except information. Reject their money, their campaign help, their free trips, or "anything else."
* Congress. Shrink the staff, which has grown to more than 38,000 employees.
* The executive branch. Downsize it, just as corporate America is putting itself on a diet.
Perot compares out-of-control spending by the White House and Congress to an impoverished family that decides to take an expensive continental holiday.
"When you're broke, you can't go to Europe," he noted March 2 on CBS during one of his many television appearances this week. "When you're broke, maybe you can go down to the movie and get some popcorn, if you can afford it. We cannot continue these massive, dreamlike spending programs until we get this [debt] under control."
Rather than trimming the fat, Perot charges that Clinton's government is "still growing and bloating."
Perot's public appearances are part of a buildup toward his own 30-minute program on March 21. He has purchased time on 1,000 radio stations and NBC-TV.
His aim: create a huge, grass-roots organization, United We Stand America Inc., to support government reform and, perhaps, put Perot in the White House in 1996.
Sharon Holman, a Perot spokeswoman, says reforming government now is his top-priority issue - even ahead of the nation's debt crisis. "Until we get true reform of government, we will never get on top of the [debt] problem," Ms. Holman says.
Though Perot placed third in last year's presidential election, with 19 percent of the vote, Holman says the impact of his effort is still rippling through government.
One of Perot's major stated goals was to energize Americans, to make their impact felt at the highest levels of government. Now, Perot claims some of the credit for an outpouring of telephone calls to Capitol Hill and the White House.
For example, in the period between Jan. 1 and Feb. 4, the congressional telephone system logged 4.2 million calls, with 513,325 cascading through the system on a single day, Jan. 27. That's double the rate of last year.
Holman says many of those calls are from Perot supporters who are determined to wrest control of government away from "special interests." Perot himself still is averaging 3,000 to 5,000 calls a day at his 24-line Texas phone bank.
With appearances this week on CBS, CNN, PBS, and other television networks, Perot hopes to widen support for United We Stand America, which has a membership fee of $15.
For now, Perot is financing the entire effort. But eventually he plans to use the membership dues to set up an interactive electronic town hall, Holman says.
The electronic system would allow citizens anywhere to make a local telephone call into a computer to express their views. Their "ballots" would automatically be routed to their own congressmen and senators.