GOVERNMENT can be made smaller and work better, but it won't be easy, says a group of scholars. This is partly because government is given so many social missions that inhibit efficiency and partly because of congressional micromanagement.
For example: In 1956, Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act, a 28-page bill authorizing the interstate highway system. Thirty-five years later, Congress reauthorized the program in a bill that ran to 293 pages.
In addition to authorizing the secretary of transportation to finish the interstates, the ``Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act'' directed him to relieve congestion, improve air quality, preserve historic sites, encourage the use of seat belts and motorcycle helmets, control erosion and water runoff, collect data on speeding, reduce drunk driving, consider the environment, limit billboards, use recycled rubber in asphalt, set aside 10 percent of construction money for small businesses owned by the disadvantaged and achieve a number of other social goals.
The authors of a Brookings Institution report, ``Deregulating the Public Service,'' issued last week, cite such expansion of goals to illustrate obstacles to the Clinton administration's aim of ``reinventing government.''
Their report is pessimistic.
Of the dozens of efforts since 1787 to reform government by establishing a new administrative climate, only two have worked, said Marvin Dubnick of Rutgers University, one of the authors. One was the institutionalization of the spoils system in the 1800s; the other was its replacement by the merit system in the 1900s.
``Will the new reformers succeed?'' Mr. Dubnick asks. ``It is hard to be very optimistic.'' The same distrust of government that gives reform its impetus, he says, works against the reform measure most often advocated: giving government administrators more freedom of movement. ``So long as trust is weak, the public will not support reforms that give public administrators more discretion, even with the promise of more innovative, productive and efficient government.''
The view that government should adopt the methods of business underlies ``Reinventing Government,'' a book by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler that has become the Clinton administration's bible in its efforts to overhaul government.
But business methods often don't fit government, James Q. Wilson of the University of California at Los Angeles argues in the Brookings report. ``Surely,'' Mr. Wilson wrote, ``we do not want the Internal Revenue Service to be competitive, community-owned and customer-driven; we want it to be consistent, honest and responsible.''
The chief Brookings suggestion is to ``deregulate'' government managers and employees by changing personnel and procurement procedures to give them more discretion.