Watching the waste watchers

It would be unfortunate if the Reagan administration's effort to trim costly waste from the federal government became embroiled in domestic politics. Such a program is more than necessary, given the sheer size of the federal budget, with outlays of over $700 billion for 1982 alone. Virtually every administration since that of President Truman back in the 1940s has sought to slash the fat from the federal establishment. Both Mr. Truman and President Eisenhower established presidential commissions that proved successful in identifying reforms that led to substantial savings of taxpayer dollars.

The current administration's zeal in going after waste and red tape is no less commendable. Yet it seems to be approaching its effort with a sense of secrecy and with an ideological bent that not only could bring its final recommendations into question but has already triggered unease on the part of Congress.

At issue is the President's Private Sector Survey on Cost Control (PPSSCC), established last February and headed up by J. Peter Grace, chairman of Grace and Co. The survey is made up of some 1,500 persons grouped in 35 task forces. Yet, of the 1,500 members, almost all are business officials. Few represent labor unions, citizen groups, universities - or just the ''general public.'' In many cases the individual task forces studying departments and agencies are comprised of persons from the very firms that are regulated by the departments in the first place. Finally, the survey has refused to provide Congress with a complete list of its members.

Surely there can be no quarrel with bringing in some experts from a particular industry to study the efficiency of the department or agency charged with regulating that industry. Government has become too complicated and sophisticated to preclude that type of searching review. What is needed, however , is a mix of experts from various fields to ensure the objectivity and integrity of the study. Anything that suggests a tampering with policy or review of files that might specially benefit the regulated firms should be avoided at all costs.

There is still time to open up the task force to a larger segment of interests. And it should cooperate fully with congressional committees, including providing full rosters of members. That type of openness, plus having a balanced mix of members, helped make the two Hoover Commissions of the Truman and Eisenhower years so successful.

It is self-evident that the Reagan administration urgently wants to seek out and end federal waste. It would therefore be a shame if the administration undermined that effort by not putting together a competent, well-balanced commission.

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