In his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1981 story "The Federal Bureaucracy," Associated Press reporter Saul Pett painted the government as an amorphous mass, impossible to tame or organize, an all-encompassing swamp where rules, regulations and organizations bubble up in one place whenever they are forced down in another. "It is so shapeless you can't diagram it with boxes," Pett wrote, "because after you put the president here and the Congress there and the judiciary in a third place, where in the hell do you put the Ad Hoc Committee for the Implementation of PL89-306? Or the Interdepartmental Screwthread Committee? Or the Interglacial Panel on the Present?" Jimmy Carter, who had been recently voted out of office when Pett's 8,500-word article appeared, had decried "horrible, bloated bureaucracy" on the campaign trail. Once in office, though, he succeeded in shuttering only a few minor organizations, a victory more than offset by his creation of the departments of Energy and Education, plus numerous subagency boards and independent committees. The executive branch had become a mess, the president complained to Congress, where directives were passed around but never implemented and where work was hopelessly slowed by entrenched do-nothings. "It is easier to promote and transfer incompetent employees than to get rid of them," he said. "It may take as long as three years to fire someone for just cause." Many people have tried to tame the federal bureaucracy since Carter's day. President Reagan created a commission of private sector executives who said they could save the government $45 billion with a series of initiatives. Most were never implemented. George H.W. Bush's vice president Dan Quayle ran a Council on Competitiveness focused on eliminating excessive regulations and slowing the tide of new ones. President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore launched the National Performance Review (later called the National Partnership for Reinventing Government), an internal consulting outfit made up of temporarily reassigned federal workers. They labored day after day to try to create a government that would "work better and cost less." President George W. Bush opted to try to shrink government by outsourcing it, insisting any work that could be contracted out to the private sector would be. Despite the best efforts of five administrations (and many that came before), assaults against government's size, scope and efficiency are as prevalent as ever. And the attacks are coming from both sides of the political aisle. President Obama, for example, couldn't resist taking a swipe at the bureaucracy that he is charged with leading during his most recent State of the Union address. "There are 12 different agencies that deal with exports," the president complained. "There are at least five different entities that deal with housing policy. Then there's my favorite example: the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in salt water. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked." With his reelection campaign looming and pressure to cut "big government" growing from the right every day, Obama felt the need to launch his own war on bureaucracy and inefficiency. Six months after his address, he unveiled his Campaign to Cut Waste, a hodgepodge of small and large initiatives he said would make government function better, faster, cheaper and more transparently. Now the question is: If the problem of waste and inefficiency remains even after all the previous initiatives, does Obama's effort stand a chance? In the November issue of Government Executive, staff correspondent Joseph Marks looks at the president's war on waste. Click here to read the full story.
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