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REINVENTING SMOKE AND MIRRORS

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The administration's popular "reinventing government" scheme was intended to make agencies efficient and user-friendly - and also to close the "trust deficit," the administration said. But now the exercise is bogged down in disconcertingly inconsistent estimates of how much it will save.

The first slate of reinvention proposals sent to Capitol Hill would lower five-year costs by $5.9 billion, according to the White House. Not! retorts the Congressional Budget Office, which projects a paltry saving of $305 million.Some of this eye-popping discrepancy can be traced to differing treatment of federal worker buyouts. The administration wants to offer $25,000 severance payments to employees who resign or retire early (to help meet the overall goal of reducing the work force by 252,000). Budgeteers at the Capitol cost the buyouts at $2 billion in the first five years - while the White House fudges the issue by assuming the payments will be funded through unspecified tightening of belts. "Thus," said budget director Leon Panetta with wonderful aplomb, "the ultimate cost would be zero."

There, the perfect restorative for public trust: free lunch!