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TALK’S BIG, BUT DOWNSIZING IDEAS OF GOP AMOUNT TO SMALL POTATOES

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IN THEIR EAGERNESS to demonstrate they are serious about downsizing government, House Republicans are talking about many visible, symbolic changes on Capitol Hill.

"You've got to start with yourself," a GOP freshman said.Sounds good. But don't just listen to what they say; watch what they do.

The newcomers, for instance, are not crusading to inconvenience themselves by cutting their own salaries and lavish pension and health plans or getting rid of their exclusive airport parking spots.

Instead they have targeted inanimate objects primarily associated with Democrats like buildings and Cabinet departments. The goal is to make cosmetic reforms that look serious. In truth, the financial savings would be small or non-existent.

One of the most dramatic proposals is to sell off to some rich developer a minor House office building, named for President Gerald Ford. Wow. Doesn't that sound like a sacrifice?

But wait. A 10-minute walk from the Capitol itself, the building is not central to most legislative activities. It currently shelters the loathed Congressional Budget Office, source of so many sober budgetary studies exposing the illusions of rosy Reagan and Bush administration economic predictions.

And it houses many of the congressional caucuses the Republicans want to eliminate, in particular those representing Hispanics, blacks and the arts, causes that irritate conservatives bent on pandering to the Southern white male. Revenge - how sweet it is.

Another proposal that sounds like a serious assault on a bloated federal government is to abolish a Cabinet department or two, the more the merrier. This is not a bad idea, but it is neither new nor particularly useful in reducing the actual size of government.

Indeed, there are too many Cabinet departments, contributing to the impression the executive branch is unwieldy and top-heavy.

Favorite targets seem to be the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education and Commerce.

Notably, the new Veterans Affairs Department is not high on these lists. Veterans' benefits are a sacred cow both to Democrats and Republicans.

Symbolically downgrading the Education Department would send a terrible signal at a time of accelerated technology when educational skills are more important than ever to our ability to compete in a global marketplace. But folding others into some superdepartment probably wouldn't do a great deal of harm.

An overall federal reorganization that regroups department functions in different ways, in the process eliminating some Cabinet seats, might be useful. But it would not serve the political imperatives currently driving both the House Republicans and President Clinton.

Reorganization, being a mushy concept, doesn't cut it in the public relations wars. All that counts are moves, even if largely fake, that look as though their sole purpose was to slash government.