The bureaucrat's curse. The bane of every citizen's mundane negotiations. The monster politicians fight to slay.
Well, guess what? Nobody in government uses the stuff anymore. Yes, red tape is more than a metaphor, or at least it once was.
Red tape -- it was actually red cloth or ribbon -- was used for centuries by the British to tie up legal and official documents. Its early use in this country is cited in a document in the National Archives, which noted that three lengths were first purchased May 15, 1786, by Charles Curtis, secretary of the Continental Congress, to keep American records tidy.
In modern times, especially, red tape has become a pervasive symbol of government's snags and snarls and inefficiency. The Oxford English Dictionary offers a more gentle definition: "excessive use or adherence to formalities."
A few examples close to home:
Shortly after he took office in 1981, President Ronald Reagan commended an administration housing commission that "found that 20 percent of the cost of a home is due to red tape, bureaucratic delays and government regulation."
Shortly after President Bush took office in 1989, he too created a housing commission, "a blue ribbon commission," Bush called it, "to identify the excessive rules, regulations and red tape that add unnecessarily to the cost of housing. . . . "
After he was elected Maryland's governor in 1986, William Donald Schaefer formed an Office of Red Tape Cutting. Irked over the slow-moving state bureaucracy -- he pointed to how difficult it was to get through to the Department of Motor Vehicles as an example -- Schaefer appointed a task force to "cut red tape." Schaefer held a news conference at which telephones covered in sticky red tape were snipped free.
Sometimes red tape is a partisan problem, as when Bush called the Democrats "the party of red tape."
But sometimes it is a bipartisan issue, as when Bush and the nation's governors pledged in a 1989 joint statement after an education summit "to swap red tape for results."
The phrase was used by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who is running for president, when he railed against the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last month because "important research funds have remained tied up in bureaucratic red tape."
Agriculture Secretary Edward R. Madigan recently unveiled eight pilot projects he said are designed to make the Agriculture Department more "farmer friendly" by cutting red tape and paperwork.
But actually finding red tape to cut is not so easy.
Take Anna Marie Leone, a contract specialist with the General Services Administration -- procurer of supplies for the federal government. Leone could find no recent listing for red tape in GSA stock catalogues.
She searched through the indexes of the five-pound 1990 and 1991 references, and all she could find was a listing for "bleached cotton tape . . . herringbone and twill . . . on a spool . . . used as a stay binding in the making of clothing and other textiles." But it's not red.
That is just fine with Richard Peuser, a military archivist at the National Archives, who explained that red tape is anti-preservation.
Peuser said in colonial days, the British sent legal documents, such as the Stamp Act of 1765, tied with red tape. That custom of using red tape to tie and store documents continued here through the centuries. Peuser said agencies, such as the War Department, would store records trifolded and tied with red cloth.
Because of the binding process and because the red tape was acidic, "a lot of 19th century records are in bad shape and fading away," Peuser said. "Loose is better. We want them loose and away from that stuff."
Staff researcher Mark Stencel contributed to this report.