MEMBERS of Congress from both parties have been lining up this week to heap praise on Vice President Al Gore Jr.'s initiative to ``reinvent government.''
Who, after all, can argue with a proposal that aims to create a government that ``works better and costs less?''
But ``most of the big stuff'' in Mr. Gore's overview and accompanying documents, which together contain some 1,200 recommendations to improve government performance, ``will require congressional action,'' says John Mercer, Republican counsel to the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs.
And regardless of how much members of Congress say they want to eliminate waste, members do not ax programs easily. Witness the continued existence of the much-ridiculed honey-bee and mohair subsidies.
Nor do lawmakers cede power to the president lightly. Some aspects of the Gore report represent the latest attempt by the executive branch to wrest control from the legislative branch. One is the proposal to switch from a one-year to a two-year budgeting process; another is the proposal to grant the president greater authority to cut individual spending items.
``I view these as the latest salvo in the ongoing battle for clout,'' says Richard Munson, author of a new book, ``The Cardinals of Capitol Hill,'' about the House Appropriations Committee.
``Cabinet secretaries are salivating over not having to appear every year to explain cost overruns,'' Mr. Munson says. ``But the cardinals feel it's their right to grill them - and to do a budget every year.''
Spending money, after all, is Congress's raison dtre. Indeed, Gore, a former senator, implies that that's just about all Congress is good at. The first page of the report's introduction says: ``It is almost as if federal programs were designed not to work. In truth, few are `designed' at all; the legislative process simply churns them out, one after another, year after year.''
Meanwhile, early drafts of Gore's report that circulated around Capitol Hill in recent weeks have already spurred preemptive activity by some members of Congress. Congress blocks merger
In one example, the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the Treasury added a last-minute amendment to its bill in August that would prevent federal funds from being spent to reorganize the Treasury's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). It had long been rumored that ATF, which was criticized for its role in the ill-fated Waco, Texas, standoff last April, would be shut down and its functions incorporated into the FBI, which is part of the Justice Department.
Gore does wind up recommending that move as part of an effort to spur greater cooperation among federal law-enforcement agencies. But ATF has its staunch supporters, including Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona, chairman of the Treasury Appropriations subcommittee.
``If all law enforcement was in the FBI, there would be a chance for abuses of power,'' says a Democratic aide to the Senate Appropriations Committee. ``De-Concini is against a wholesale transfer, and he was concerned that something could be done legislatively to begin the transfer.''
An addition to another appropriations bill would bar the Agriculture Department from closing field offices of the Forest Service, a move Gore also considered.
And in another example of a member protecting his turf, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina introduced legislation a day before the summer recess began to set up a commission to study the maritime industry, after he heard Gore might recommend deregulation of the industry. As it turned out, Gore's report wound up echoing Mr. Hollings's bill.
As much as members like to say they favor streamlining government, Congress's legislative history is littered with failures to do that - and Gore's report drags back some repeat attempts. One proposal that Congress has already voted down before would cut from 11 to five the number of regional offices of the Army Corps of Engineers.
But this latest of countless efforts to slim down government has a shot at producing some results, supporters say. By lending his public support to the effort, President Clinton has invested political capital in it - and he has much to gain, especially among Republicans, if he follows through. Bipartisan support
In fact, one of Clinton's biggest boosters is Republican Sen. William Roth of Delaware, ranking minority member on the Governmental Affairs Committee. Senator Roth and the committee chairman, Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio, have legislation ready to put the ``reinventing government'' plan into action.
For now, partisan differences have been put aside over the question of government reform. ``Of course, embracing it helps the Democrats, but what are we supposed to do? This is what we've been advocating for years,'' says GOP counsel Mercer.
But Republicans warn they'll be holding Clinton's feet to the fire on his promised goals of eliminating 252,000 federal jobs and saving $108 billion. They also want to ensure that savings go toward retiring the deficit, not paying for new programs.