Saving $60 billion

American taxpayers may sing June is bustin' out all over to a new tune this summer - the tune of at least $60 billion a year, that is. This is the amount of possible savings promised by businessman J. Peter Grace under federal cost-cutting proposals to be announced a couple of months from now.

Suppose Congress and the administration pulled up their socks and acted to achieve savings of this magnitude, whether or not through the precise means identified by the presidential panel that Mr. Grace heads. Taxpayers might not become wholly as cheerful as the old song. But their basic willingness to pay fair shares for maintaining a sound government would have to be reinforced by a prospect of revenue used carefully rather than poured down the legendary rathole.

Tell me another, says the skeptical veteran of previous rounds of committee findings. It doesn't necessarily take outsiders, such as Mr. Grace's PPSSCC (President's Private Sector Survey on Cost Control), to see that the emperor's company has too many clothes.

After all, past reports of the General Accounting Office have shown how various agencies could save billions now lost in waste and fraud just by acting on the findings of their own auditors. Consider uncollected debts alone. The present administration inherited some $100 billion worth. If that is considered an addition to the national debt, the interest on it (say $8 billion) becomes a continuing drain on taxpayers.

But could it be that the PPSSCC's report will actually be followed up? Has the success of the presidential social security commission set a precedent the Grace cost-cutting group can follow? Taxpayers will doubtless hope so.

To be sure, controversy has already arisen around the cost-cutters' preliminary report this week. They appear to be well within their mandate of dealing with management rather than policy when they suggest saving almost $16 billion over three years by bringing the costs of the civil service retirement system more into line with private systems. But policy questions could be raised when they discuss such matters as altering food stamp payments and giving states more authority over anti-pollution programs.

The lines may be hard to draw. One PPSSCC member has acknowledged the difficulty of staying out of policy when it is very hard to get substantial savings ''just by being more efficient.'' Another notes that even if the proportion of waste is no more than in some private businesses, the magnitude of government expenditures makes it loom large.

When more than 160 top private-sector people lead a task force of 1,300 in scrutiny of Washington's ways, whatever they come up with deserves scrutiny, too - whether as complicated as policy or as elementary as the cost of processing a check. Congress and the administration should be expected to examine the June report as warily as that of the social security commission. And, if finally they like what they see, to show once more that they can get together expeditiously on the nation's behalf.

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