The incredible vanishing government

A standard attack line used by Gov. George W. Bush against Vice President Al Gore is, "He trusts Washington; I trust the people."

Mr. Bush is campaigning in the great tradition of the candidates who run against the government that they hope to head. It is a tradition that gave us the George Wallace campaign against the "pointy-headed bureaucrats." And Ronald Reagan's announcement, in his 1981 inaugural speech, that "government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem."

It is no wonder that pollsters Peter Hart and Robert Teeter found, in a survey last year, that "the ties between the public and the government are badly frayed," with 64 percent of the citizenry feeling disconnected from the government.

But, good news! Help is on its way - the federal government is vanishing before our eyes.

At the top of the government, says a study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, "the presidential appointments process now verges on complete collapse." The next president will be lucky to have his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet in place nine months after he is sworn in. Confirmation delays of half a year or more were experienced by 11 percent of Reagan appointees, 25 percent of Bush appointees, and 44 percent of Clinton appointees. That, and the enormous amount of paperwork now required for nominees, are driving away a lot of promising public servants.

Some of the recent delay resulted from Clinton administration stumbles and scandals, says the report, but the underlying causes will remain after President Clinton is gone.

At lower levels of public service, there lies another threat - accelerating attrition and diminishing prospects for replacement. A Washington Post study shows that within five years, 30 percent of the government's 1.6 million employees will be eligible to retire, and 20 percent more could seek early retirement.

That includes 65 percent of the Senior Executive Service, the government's elite cadre of managers and technicians.

Why are they leaving at such a rate? In part because they are tired of being regarded as part of something oppressive and evil. And, those who should replace them are mostly looking to the private sector for better pay and more promising careers. For many university graduates today, Internet stock options or a starting salary of $130,000 in a law firm is more alluring than service in government that seems somehow unrespectable.

The White House is considering a recruiting campaign to attract new talent. Meanwhile, Sen. George Voinovich (R) of Ohio, who heads a Senate panel on federal management, says, "We're running out of time in some of these agencies in terms of the skills that are needed to keep them going."

There is that old Chinese saying: "Be careful what you wish for. You may get it." That is for those who wished for the marvelous vanishing government. I just hope there will be someone left to turn out the lights.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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