USDA Shows Challenge Of Cutting Bureaucracy

HERE at 14th Street and Independence Avenue stands the bureaucracy of bureaucracies, the endless corridors rampant with war stories:

* Of bureaucrats who stare out their office windows, their work no longer needed but their jobs continuing on.

* Of programs created to solve social problems licked decades ago - but which reappear full strength in each budget.

* Of field offices to serve farmers in counties where the farms have all but disappeared.

As Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy told Congress a few months ago, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the kind of place Americans think of when they think of federal bureaucracy.

And Americans are not fond of federal bureaucracy.

Mr. Espy is leading his department ambitiously toward a leaner and more-efficient design in a restructuring effort that insiders describe as massive - hoping to put it at the forefront of Vice President Al Gore Jr.'s effort to ``reinvent government.''

Tension is running high these days in the Agriculture Department, employees from various levels and agencies say, as they try to sort out the impact of the mergers and recombinations of agencies that Espy is proposing. As part of the restructuring, the department must deal with the loss of 7,500 jobs and the closing of 1,200 field offices.

But hope is also high among many employees who believe that this kind of restructuring has been too long in coming. ``It's about time we're getting some political interest in the good management we should have been doing,'' says Alan Johnson, director of the department's EconomicManagement Staff.

The USDA is more bureaucratic empire than mere Cabinet department. Its many agencies are nearly autonomous, some with formidable power bases in thousands of field offices. Former Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan recalls sitting in his office with a state director, his employee, while fielding a protest call from a member of Congress - who was calling at the request of the state director.

The old joke about the USDA employee in mourning because, he moaned, ``My farmer died,'' is not entirely accurate in suggesting that each farmer has his own agricultural bureaucrat. Actually, there are about 16 farmers to each USDA employee. Looked at another way, the USDA budget is nearly equivalent to the dollar value of the nation's total annual crop yield.

But then, the USDA does far more than advise farmers. More than one-third of the department's annual budget of just under $70 billion is for the Food Stamp program. The department also performs duties ranging from meat inspection to upkeep of the nation's forests. Congress resists change

Mr. Madigan, who left office less than a year ago, attributes to Congress much of the resistance to restructuring at the USDA. In 1973, for instance, the Forest Service proposed consolidating its six regional offices into five, Madigan says. Then-Sen. Mike Mansfield (D) of Montana opposed the move and had the USDA budget appropriation specify six regions. That line has remained in the USDA appropriation every year since. A line barring the USDA from closing an office in Hilo, Hawaii, and merging its function with another office, has been written into every appropriation for the past 12 years.

The USDA is rife with complaints about employees who perform little or no real work. Madigan recalls an agency head professing that he had 70 employees who did nothing. Civil Service rules, however, would only allow firing employees beginning with the last one hired - ``the ones that are working,'' the executive said.

Joe Leo, a USDA official who worked on Mr. Gore's reinventing-government team, sees an opportunity to cut staff throughout the department. Paring personnel, he adds, will not impair the service and function of the Agriculture Department: ``In my view, absolutely not.''

Many employees in the ranks of USDA are skeptical of Espy's restructuring effort, because they have seen it attempted before. ``Almost every administration since I've been working for the government has reorganized,'' says one USDA official, who credits Espy with sincerity and energy but holds out little optimism for change.

Some of the merging and consolidating that Espy is proposing at headquarters is very similar to changes made in the Carter administration - changes that were mostly reversed under President Reagan. But the current proposals are generally considered to be more fundamental.

Espy has already experienced success and failure in implementing his plans. On the plus side, subsidy programs for wool and mohair are finally being phased out, saving about $514 million over the next five years. But the administration hasn't managed to eliminate the Rural Electric Administration, even though virtually 100 percent of the country already has electricity. Plans to close field offices

Still, Espy presses on. He plans to close about 1,200 of the department's 3,700 field offices. In most cases, separate offices for different farm-service agencies - such as the Soil Conservation Service and the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service - would be consolidated to give farmers one-stop shopping.

These closings have the general support of the American Farm Bureau Federation and many state farm officials.

But in counties that stand to lose offices and official positions, many expect strong congressional complaints. Supporters of the changes are hoping to bring all of them to Congress simultaneously for a vote in a budget bill. If field offices have to be negotiated one by one, ``it will be agonizing,'' one official says.

Before Espy closes any field offices, he is committed to reorganizing headquarters. He has submitted a bill to Congress asking for broad authority to do this, freeing him from many of the bonds Congress has put on the department over the years.

At USDA headquarters, many employees have not quite figured out what to think about Espy's proposals. Says Charles Rawls, executive assistant to the deputy secretary: ``I sense that people who work here would really like to see the agency change.''

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