It's not $424 billion, but it is $1.95 -- a first small step. For that price you get a "layman's survey of . . . humane, practical recommendations to cut waste and make government more efficient (that) could save us $424 billion in just three years." With it come clear instructions showing "how you can help beat the deficit by getting Congress to enact the Grace recommendations into law."
Congress had better prepare for a deluge of mail. The book's publisher, Jameson Campaigne Jr., says that his firm does a healthy business distributing low-cost paperbacks -- "tracts" he calls them -- for conservative causes. He has already distributed 400,000 copies, mostly in bulk quantities, of "A Taxpayer Survey of the Grace Commission Report." Half of these went to the National Tax Limitation Committee, of which Campaigne is a director, which is using them to proselytize on behalf of a constitutional amendment freezing taxes and mandating a balanced budget.
Another few thousand copies went to Peter Grace, former chairman of the President's Private Sector Survey on Cost Control, a k a the Grace Commission, whose report is summarized. Even before the "Taxpayer Survey" emerged, Chairman Grace was embarked on a full-scale campaign to publicize his commission's findings.
The first two volumes of the full commission report, published by the Government Printing Office last January, have been republished in a glossy paperback available for $9.95 from Macmillan. For those who found the original report long-winded and confusing -- which is so say almost everyone -- Grace has written another, livelier version, "Burning Money," from the same publisher. He has been interviewed for numerous newspaper stories and television shows, and major companies have bought expensive ads in The Wall Street Journal touting his findings. Columnist Jack Anderson has joined with him in recruiting people for his "Citizens Against Waste" crusade and organizing a petition urging Congress to enact his recommendations.
Many of the Grace Commission ideas make good sense. Why, except for the power of lobbies, shouldn't the government charge a fair price for the electricity it generates, or the crop irrigation it provides, or the inland waterways it operates? Why doesn't the government collect its debts on time and modernize its accounting?
So what's the harm in all the hoopla? Well, like other prescriptions for painless self-improvements, this one promises far more than it delivers. Go through the "Taxpayers Survey" and you will find that the economies add up to only a small fraction of the promised $424 billion. The only big-ticket savings would come from lopping almost $30 billion off Medicare payments, an idea that Social Security recipients are not likely to find either "humane" or "practical." Of course, for $1.95 you don't get the full list of reforms. But the $9.95 version -- or for that matter the full 11 volumes of findings -- don't deliver much more.
I asked Jameson Campaigne if it worried him that the Congressional Budget Office, the General Accounting Office and the administration's own Office of Management and Budget had gone through the commission report in painstaking detail and found that most of its ideas were either already in practice, totally impractical or vastly exaggerated in terms of potential savings. He replied that he was "not an expert," but he was "less concerned about the accuracy of the Grace commission than about anything CBO has done." "GAO," he said, "is part of the problem," and "OMB is even worse."
Even if you are of a mind to believe that these three agencies -- with their proud reputations and differing masters -- were involved in a conspiracy to mislead Congress, the president and the public, you ought to ask yourself a couple of questions. Could poor management really account for one out of three dollars spent by government other than for Social Security, defense and interest on the debt? If there were really all these ways to vastly improve government management, how come this efficiency-minded administration -- which has been in office for four years -- hasn't put them into action?
A citizen's campaign urging Congress to resist pork- barrel pressures and other wasteful tendencies could be a very useful thing -- if it were built on realistic expectations of both savings and consequences. But a campaign built on a false perception -- the belief that better government management could make a big dent in the deficit -- will only frustrate honest efforts in Congress and the administration to come to grips with the problem.