Bureaucracy Knows No Borders

A HUGE, creaking bureaucracy rife with ``management malaise and ineptness.'' Sound like the Soviet Union? Actually, it's the nuclear-weapons operation of the US Department of Energy. The quoted words are those of James D. Watkins, the former admiral who took over at DOE early this year and stepped into a monumental mess. Environmental considerations and administrative accountability had gone out the window at the bomb plants. Environmental Protection Agency chief William Reilly said recently that the magnitude of the clean-up ``goes off the scale.'' Managers and contractors habitually ducked such issues as waste disposal and safety in a single-minded rush toward production.

Mr. Watkins says that the overhaul of DOE's nuclear program - getting the bureaucracy out of its rut and luring new people aboard - has been 100 times harder than anything he's before undertaken. He sees the beginnings of a turnaround, and we wish him well.

Watkins isn't the only officeholder in Washington who started a job hailed as someone who gets things done, but soon hit a bureaucratic mire. Jack Kemp at Housing and Urban Development was going to show how a conservative can be an advocate for the poor. Much of his time has been spent showing how a conservative can acknowledge the failings of other conservatives - former HUD chief Samuel Pierce, former Interior secretary James Watt, and, yes, Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Kemp is starting to get out from under what he calls ``a legacy of abuse and mismanagement, fraud and favoritism'' at HUD. He's eliminating the accounting flabbiness that let scandal take root. Soon, we hope, he can devote his full energies to affordable housing, urban decay, and homelessness.

Then there's drug czar William Bennett. No one entered office with more hoopla and a tougher job ahead. The outspoken Mr. Bennett has hammered at his issues, calling for tougher enforcement and more money. Results, so far, have been few. Bennett blasts those who hinder his program - choosing targets like college presidents who let students smoke pot and intellectuals who complain that some antidrug measures raise civil liberties questions.

He tends to downplay the bureaucratic obstacles he's encountered as coordinator of federal drug policy - a task that embraces three dozen agencies. But you can be sure they nettle the czar.

So if anyone needed to be reminded, inefficiency, corruption, and other weeds of bureaucracy aren't native just to the East bloc. They've flourished there, to be sure, as revelations about corruption in the East German communist structure show.

In a democracy, at least, bureaucratic intrusions on good government can eventually be rooted out by changes of administration, an inquiring press, and an aroused public. That work can never be done too well. Just think how long the problems at HUD or DOE lay undetected.

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