Nothing bores reporters more than good management in government, so despite Edwin L. Harper's best efforts yesterday to sell stories about the Reagan administration's good management, reporters kept asking him about his boss, David Stockman, and the growing federal deficit.
Harper, the good-humored deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, is in charge of the campaign against waste, fraud and abuse. He also worries about debt collection, travel by government employes and--when the government shuts down--how many federal workers are nonessential.
He came to a breakfast meeting and handed out a document saying the administration has cut the total of unresolved audits from $1.7 billion to $199 million and that there is not one unresolved audit left in the Labor Department.
Nonetheless, the first question was, "Is there a more humble David Stockman these days?"
No, "Dave is pretty much the same," Harper said.
The administration does not want another last-minute confrontation with Congress, Harper said, but if the government runs out of money again Dec. 15, "We can suspend operations quickly. All agencies now have a plan." He said about 260,000 federal employes had been furloughed by the end of the day Monday and that if the "appropriations hiatus" had continued, the total would have reached 400,000.
What about the federal deficit. Will it top $100 billion?
"I wouldn't say that," Harper said. " . . . We have had higher deficits as a percent of gross national product."
By the way, he said, a rejuvenated effort to collect money owed the federal government places that debt at $218 billion, $34 billion of which is delinquent, $19 billion of which is owed to the Internal Revenue Service. "A full-court-press to collect that money is under way," he said.
Are you more visible now, Ed, because of the Stockman thing?
"An accident," he said, "I'm going to disappear tomorrow."
Incidentally, he said, delinquent debts in the Farmers Home Administration have been cut from $2.7 billion to $1.7 billion. The Small Business Administration's 6,000 delinquent disaster loans will be the next major target of the debt reduction effort. Then he tried to sell a story about a government auto in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that for some reason needed 16 new sets of tires in 32,000 miles. Fraud was indicated.
Reporters barely nibbled, then pressed on.
We hear the cabinet secretaries are resisting new budget cuts much more than they did the first time. Is that right?
"Cabinet secretaries," Harper said with a touch of resignation, "always resist reductions in their programs."