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TO CUT FEDERAL RED TAPE, LET'S START WITH CONGRESS

Fourteen years have passed since Congress adopted a law with the laudable objective of reducing the burden that federal paperwork imposes on the public by 5 percent a year. But instead of achieving that ambitious goal, Washington has produced just the opposite effect.

Even after federal bureaucrats had been given plenty of time to break old habits, the General Accounting Office found that the number of paperwork "burden hours" increased from 1.9 billion hours in 1987 to 6.6 billion hours in 1992.Though much of that increase resulted from a redefinition of what constitutes "burden hours," nearly half of it can be traced to reporting requirements imposed by the 1980 Paperwork Reduction Act. In trying to reduce paperwork, the law mandated more of it.

So there's little, if any, reason to cheer now that Congress is getting ready to reauthorize this law for another five years.

Yes, the proposed reauthorization contemplates some improvements, including the requirement that federal agencies give the public a chance to comment on information the bureaucracy is collecting.

But federal red tape won't be reduced nearly as much as it can and should be until Congress gets to the root of the problem - which is Congress itself, particularly its staff.

Since 1970, the congressional staff has grown from 2,000 people to more than 12,000. To justify their jobs and salaries, swollen staffs tend to produce more paperwork and more red tape.

When businesses must fill out more and more forms in response to federal requirements, the firms incur higher costs that must be passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices.

Moreover, as bigger staffs pile more paperwork on Congress, they also increase the load on various federal agencies - which increases the cost to taxpayers. In 1991, for example, the Pentagon had to produce 676 studies demanded by Congress. That's almost 2,000 percent more paperwork than was required of the Pentagon at the height of the war in Vietnam. Each report takes an average of 1,000 man-hours of work to prepare at a cost to the taxpayers of about $50,000.

If Congress really wants to reduce the costly burden imposed by federal red tape, it will have to do much more than just set ambitious but artificial goals. More to the point, it will have to reduce the number of bureaucrats and the number of regulations in the government's legislative branch as well as its executive branch.