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PAINLESS PLAN FOR HIRING FREEZE IS DOOMED

Every once in a while the House Budget Committee hatches what could pass as a good idea. Then it's squashed like a bug when the full Congress gets ahold of it.

The federal bureaucracy is now estimated at about 2.7 million employees, civilian, military and postal. But a recent committee idea for a painless reduction in the civilian work force, with annual payroll savings of about $1 billion, will soon be ready for squashing.The proposal, in its painlessness, wouldn't require mass firings but would implement a temporary hiring freeze, simply leaving some chairs empty when occupants quit or retire.

One option would replace three of every four employees leaving federal work. Another option would replace one of every two who left. Even without any provision for layoffs, both options are seen by organizers for federal bureaucrats as threatening to the employees' life and limb and the nation's well-being.

The problem, as it's always been, is that such common sense is inevitably seen as dangerous, most of all in a Congress that regards a satisfied constituency of government employees as a top priority of congressional service.

It's a general rule and not lost on members of Congress that government bureaucrats are more likely to vote than non-bureaucrat folks, those who pay the bills without sharing the federal pay and fringe benefits Congress hands out.

Robert Tobias, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, used the proposal for a temporary hiring freeze to demonstrate his understanding of the government and his calm counsel.

The barely hatched Budget Committee suggestion, Tobias said, would rip "the guts from the federal service, leaving the government with the structure but without the means to serve the public."

That gut-ripped ruin, it might be pointed out, would result if only about 8 percent of federal civilian jobs went unfilled after they became vacant.

It might also be pointed out that the massive bureaucracy is routinely shut down, grinding to a halt for contrived three-day federal holidays, for accumulated leave time at year's end, shut down by storms, even the threat of storms.

Acres of federal offices are frequently empty while the rest of America is at work. But there's never a complaint from the bureaucracy and its spokesmen that work has been left undone or that the public has been left unserved.

Any citizen fool enough to think that a sensible plan for a temporary federal hiring freeze would ever be imposed should remember that the players in this game - Congress, the executive branch and the powerful Washington establishment - all oppose it and will keep on opposing it.

Remember something else. Ronald Reagan, a president who attracted immense popular and congressional support, promised he would reduce the sprawling federal bureaucracy, tearing it out "root and branch."

And when Reagan left office, there were 2,629,903 federal employees, some 215,576 more than when he took office.