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BATTLE AGAINST RED TAPE STILL HAS A LONG WAY TO GO

Massive paperwork, tens of thousands of rigid rules and the stultifying hand of bureaucracy have caused the federal government to be seen as often more of a hindrance than a help.

As official regulations intrude more and more into Americans' lives, they like it less and less. Yet the number of regulations has seen explosive growth in the past two decades. This development has fueled a public cynicism and resentment - much of it justified - about the role of government.The Clinton administration early on addressed the problems of excessive bureaucracy and set Vice President Al Gore the task of "reinventing government."

The vice president unveiled a 126-page report recently on the results of the first year's effort. While admitting that years of work are still ahead, the administration claimed considerable success. Outside analysts gave more mixed reviews.

Most of the attention has been focused on reducing the number of federal civilian employees. So far, 71,000 have been released, mostly because of defense cuts. Another 40,000 will be offered buyouts after Oct. 1. Congress has agreed to an eventual reduction of 272,000 jobs, mostly to finance the $30 billion crime bill.

Other moves made by Gore's group include junking the 10,000-page federal personnel manual to give managers more flexibility; simplifying job-application forms; closing 10 unnecessary Housing and Urban Development regional offices; overhauling the procurement system to reduce prices for ordinary products - no more $400 hammers - plus many other steps.

Despite simplifying some manuals, Congress still has not acted on proposals to eliminate or consolidate more than 500 required reports.

The Office of Management and Budget estimated in 1991 that Americans spend 6.5 billion hours a year filling out government forms and reports and compiling records for federal regulators. Small business owners spend at least one billion hours a year filling out government forms at a cost of $100 billion.

The stories of fraud, waste, mismanagement, inertia and inefficiency are legion.

The federal regulatory apparatus is estimated to cost three times as much in 1994 as it did in 1970. The cost of regulations and mandates imposed by government is figured anywhere from $500 billion to $615 billion - one tenth of the nation's entire Gross Domestic Product.

All of this indicates that reinventing government has barely begun. This is not to discount Gore's efforts. As far as they go - which isn't far - they do help. But more serious changes must be made.

Such changes include basic alterations in the budget process and a tighter control over how departments manage their money.

For example, billions of dollars might be saved if agencies could not spend more than one-twelfth of their budgets in September, the last month of the federal fiscal year. That is traditionally a time when agencies splurge to use up any unspent funds.

The federal bookkeeping system also needs to be overhauled. With the smoke-and-mirrors system currently used, nobody can accurately quantify costs or measure progress.

No matter what administration is in charge in Washington, the battle to reduce rules and limit red tape must be carried forward with vigor and dedication - or else the bureaucrats will end up regulating the lives and emptying the pocketbooks of every American.