Editor's Notebook


Timothy B. Clark

We Americans have a lot to celebrate as the next century approaches. Our strong economy has produced record employment and a booming stock market. Our countrymen display their ingenuity every day, inventing new ways to learn, communicate, do business and generate wealth beyond the imagination. No strong enemies threaten us, and we stand alone as the world's superpower.

Yet the private sector's sense of well-being does not similarly pervade the public sector, which remains in the doldrums.Our cover story this month describes one small indicator: the demise of the secretary as an occupation in government. Though hidden from sight in the big federal bureaucracies, this problem certainly affects the working lives of many thousands of government managers, and not for the better. Agency downsizing has fallen disproportionately in the clerical ranks, we report. As managers take on tasks once done by people paid much lower salaries, and as automated telephone answering systems take over everywhere, many people, including agencies' customers and even some members of Congress, are wondering if this manifestation of the smaller-is-better imperative is counterproductive

Then there is the budget "process," if one can dignify with that word the annual charade our government mounts as it plans to spend $1.7 trillion or so. We have a story on this topic as well this October, the month that marks the start of the first fiscal year of the 21st century. The 25-year-old congressional Budget Act is in shambles, as deadlines are routinely missed, provisions of law are regularly waived, and spending caps are evaded through gimmicks and tricks. Budgeting has become a game played for partisan advantage, with politics triumphing at the expense of substance. Of particular note is our story's documentation of the slow and agonizing decline of Congress' authorizing committees. In days gone by, these committees would give executive agencies and their programs the benefit of expert and sympathetic oversight, and seek to provide the resources needed to accomplish the tasks Congress assigned. In the absence of this institutional bulwark, programs are changed to give the illusion of savings needed to finance new benefits, and many suffer from the "hollow government" syndrome of which the secretarial shortage is one manifestation.

The White House has been part of the problem, not only in the budget games but also in its failure to follow principles of organizational integrity and management oversight in the executive branch. The reinventing government movement, and the associated rise of the agency entrepreneur, has weakened adherence to established norms of public law, as the Congressional Research Service's Ronald C. Moe has argued persuasively. Today, agencies want to chart their own course with barely a nod toward Congress--which responds with ad hoc limits on their powers.

So in both branches, freelancers thrive and governmental institutions fade in authority and legitimacy. Never mind, we can revel for the moment in an evanescent budget surplus.

Tim sig2 5/3/96
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