By now, nearly everything worth noting has been said about the Lance affair: everything about professional competence, personal ethnics, political judgment, public appearance, press role and the collective impact of them all on the Carter administration.
Everything, that is, except how the Lance case bears on the trucker's log, the farmer's form (Schedule F), the OCR's school administrator's forms and other multitudinous workings of the federal bureaucracy.
These are not frivolous matters, Jimmy Carter's promise as President was three-fold: that he would set a higher standard, that he would reform government, that he would restore public trust. In particular, he was going to make government work. His campaign was fought and won on that premise. Bert Lance has been more than a key counselor and confident in these areas; he has taken a leading part.
Take the matter of the bureaucracy, For the last two years one of those federal commissions that pops up from time to time to study serious problems, files a report, and then disappears from public view has been plugging away at one of the thorniest questions of modern government - paperwork and redtape.
Before Lance's own problems engulfed him, he was probably the commission's most important, and aggressive, member. His personal participation, backed by the implicit political clout of the President, gave the entire staff a lift. And, it sent a signal throughout the bureaucracy that this time, perhaps , the effort was for real.
"In this administration we've started out under extremely favorable circumstances," a key staff member was saying just a few weeks ago. "We've had the highest priority from Carter, and OMB [Lance's Office of Management and Budget] has been extremely supportive. Bert Lance cares about this deeply and never misses a chance to tell people about what we're doing and finding. The environment has been such that we've come to believe we've got a possibility to be what makes Washington tick. And the bureaucrats want to responsive to these concerns. After all, the last election was run - and won - on this."
What the commission has been uncovering amounts to a devastatig indictment of the way government has been running. It provides proof, indeed, that Carter was right in speaking of the intolerable snarls created throughout government by crippling paperwork and overlapping, confusing and often competing programs.
Quietly, and thoroughly, the commission files are revealing one horror story after another.
Here's one, for instance, that reads like a text out of "Catch-22" or "1984":
A woman with no bank account is denied Medicaid payments for six months because she hasn't provided a bank account. In this case, the woman, a young mother of two, disabled, deserted by her husband, and unable to work for three years goes to a welfare office and applies for federal benefits.
On her first trip to the office she waits six hours before her name is called by a receptionist; then she's told to come back with various documents. The next time she waits four hours before seeing a caseworker: this time she's told she must provide a bank statement. She's already explained that since she hasn't been working she hasn't had a bank account for three years. But she goes to her former bank anyway, arranges to have the bank trace her records and provide a copy, for a fee. Back goes that word to the caseworker. She's informed she'll be notified as soon as the welfare office acts on her application.
Nothing happens. Three months later she returns to the welfare office. Her application has been denied because she doesn't have her bank statement, she's told. She tries again. By phone, she talks to two different people at the same office. Each directs her to a different office. She goes to one - and is told she should have gone to the other. At the next office another caseworkers tells her her original application shouldn't have been denied in the first place. The caseworker helps her reapply. Eventually, six months after her first application, she gets her first welfare check.
The commission has been examining some 20 governmental program areas, covering health and education and housing and taxes. The deeper it's looked the more pervasive the problems seem. It estimates we're now filling out more than 500 million federal forms each year on matters related to our personal lives. The cost in dollars is massive - at least $40 billion a year, and probably as high as $100 billion. But the most important measure is not in money. It's in the emotional frustration, and anger, that comes from trying to wade through a seemingly impenetrable system.
The stories the commission has documented are legion. There's the case of the Army veteran who made a 130-mile round trip to perform required paperwork at a Veterans Administration office, only to be told a few months later that he had to return to the same office and provide the same information again to qualify for a different program.
Then there are simply the deadly examples of paperwork gone wild. For instance: we've got an energy problem, sure, that it's critical to know just how much oil we're importing. Well enough. But when the commission looked into the information the government was reporting it came up with arresting figures being put out by the various federal agencies. In one months, the Bureau of the Census reports 9.1 million barrels of oil imported daily; the Federal Energy Administration, 6.8 million, the Bureau of Mines, 6.6 million. Seems the agencies use different terms, methods and deadlines. And, the government uses a total of 11 different forms to gather the information scattered among those agencies.
The commission staff did a readability test of the simplest income tax form. It found that it requires a college education to understand it. They took a look at the so-called farmer's tax form (Schedule F) and discovered it was two or three times as complex and difficult to file as the businessman's. No one at IRS could say just why it had been structured that way. A form sent out to school administrators across the land by the Office of Civil Rights was so complex that many refused to comply with it.
A favorite example of Warren Buhler's, the commission's director, deals with the Transportation Departments "trucker's log." Back in the New Deal days, 1939, to be exact, a law has passed to try to protect the public from tired truck drivers. The bureaucratic solution: a trucker's daily log, requiring drivers to fill out in 15-minute intervals just what they're doing. The idea was to prove that the drivers weren't on the road more than 10 hours.
Ridiculous on the face of it, for who would voluntarily expose his crimes in writing for the government to inspect? But it began to have a life of its own. Each driver fills out his daily log in duplicate. The cumulative paperwork on this log alone has been amounting to about 1 billion 200 million sheets each year. To monitor those forms, the government has had some 120 inspectors. The result of all that effort has been about 300 prosecutions a year.
After persistent efforts by the paperwork commission to change this practice, the Transportation Department has just recently agreed to cut the filing of paperwork on the logs by some 40 per cent.
In paperwork, progress may be slow, but nevertheless sweet. As Buhler says: "What counts always in Washington, what makes the game worth playing, is if you change things."
In a much grander way, and for much higher stakes, the same question could be raised about Bert Lance's chances to carry out one of Carter's most desirable goals. Certainly he's not indispensable, but for now his promise appears to have been blunted, if not lanced.