Unless there is a turnabout of near miracle proportions on Capitol Hill, regular readers are likely to find an unusual item in their newspapers next March 31, the obituary of a government agency.
The decedent will be the Renegotiation Board, a 27-year-old federal office that has fallen victim to the general discontent with big government and perhaps more important to a lobbying campaign mounted by business groups around the nation.
Federal agencies once chartered generally go on indefinitely. The Renegotiation Board itself is proof. Started as a termporary response to the Korean War, the board was extended by Congress 13 times over the years. Even after its authorizing statute finally expired in 1976, the agency continued to operate winning a higher budget appropriation each year.
But now the House, in response to intensive lobbying from defense contractors large and small, has passed legislation to abolish the board on March 31, 1979, and the Senate seems likely to follow suit.
Thus the board provides a rare case study of how a federal agency can be killed.
The Renegotiation Board is the government's watchdog against "excessive" profits on defense and space contracts. It reviews or "renegotiates" government contracts when the work is completed and takes back some of the contractor's profit if it concludes he has earned too much.
On strict dollar terms, the board has been a good investment for the government, bringing in more than $6 for each $1 of its budget in fiscal year 1976, it reviewed $41 billion worth of contracts and ordered repayment of $40 million to the government. (Ninety percent of the orders were appealed to the courts).
In addition, according to the General Accounting Office, the board probably saves the government much more because its more existence serves as a deterrent to profiteering.
But contractor groups, pointing to the board's complex record-keeping and procedural requirements, see it as an enormous engine of red tape that discourages companies, particularly smaller firms, from doing business with the government.
For years the board's friends and foes fought to a standoff in Congress. Supporters were able to win regular extensions of the board's authorizing statutes, but opponents were able to defeat every effort to increase its staff or strengthen its power.
Then, at the start of the 95th Congress, the defense industry starting playing offense. Business groups, working through the major defense prime contractors which employ hundreds of smaller subcontractors, organized a grass-roots network of businessmen. With the subcontractors on board, the associations could count on spokesmen in nearly every congressional district to make personal appeals to individual members of Congress.
Lobby leaders recruited small businessmen to testify about their struggles with renegotiation. They produced figures suggesting that renegotiation cost the government more money than it took in, because the contractors' cost of compliance was passed on to the government in the form of higher prices.
While business lobbied hard against the board, there was no organized constituency to support it. For congressmen seeking to take some action against "big government," the board was a perfect target. It could be cut without aggravating any concerted pressure group.
Opponents also profited from the agency's reputation for ineptitude.
Presidents over the years had used the board as a last resting place for their political friends and the results were clear. Even the board's backers had to admit that the agency was inefficient an often misdirected. The board concentrated on smaller companies, rarely challenging the profits earned by the biggests arms manufacturers.
"We could have passed an extension easy if that board was a competent agency," says Rep. Joseph Minish (D-N.J.), the board's leading champion in the House.
"But you got all these guys lobbying against it, and a bunch of idiots, with a capital I, sitting on the board - would take a near-miracle to save thing now."
The board could still be saved if the Senate rejects a subcommittee bill abolishing it and then reverses the House vote in conference. But that seems unlikely.
"It's a very, very different situation," says Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), the board's chief congressional supporter. "There's an awful not much to keep it around."