Yesterday evening NBC’s Garrett Haake had a nice scoop, revealing some policy proposal details that Mitt Romney discussed at a closed-door fundraiser. Most notably: plans to streamline the federal government, possibly eliminating some agencies — and, perhaps, shutting down the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which Romney’s father once headed.

So, what to make of this? How will it affect the budget? Government services? Impossible to say, from the details we have now. These sorts of plans could mean any of three things, all of which were hinted at in Haake’s report. Reporters pursuing the story should be aware of the differences.

One possibility would be, essentially, rearranging the deck chairs. The government would still be doing the same thing, only attempting to be more efficient. The questions here are whether any supposed efficiencies are real, and if so whether they are worth the transaction costs of making the change. Warning: generally, anything that can be sold as “eliminating bureaucrats” will poll well. However, in real life such reforms may have only symbolic gains. As Ezra Klein said this morning, “while it sounds very tough to talk about closing agencies, it doesn’t save you much money unless you're also willing to cut the services they provide.” Or, in some cases, any money at all.

A second possibility is federalism: Some things will be moved from the federal to the state governments. This certainly can save federal budget dollars, but will not necessarily mean overall cuts in government spending. Will it be more efficient? Hard to say. It always reminds me of the only great federalism joke, which I always attribute to James Carville: Let’s get in our cars and race from Disneyland to Disney World. I get to take the federal roads. Moving things from the federal government to the states always polls extremely well, but that’s no guarantee that it achieves efficiencies.

The third possibility is the only one that really saves the government any money: having the government do fewer things. As House Republicans have discovered, however, there are very few expensive things that government does right now that the American people don’t want. Cutting spending is generally popular in the abstract, but quite unpopular when it comes down to specific cuts in things government actually does. 

So, reporters following up should be asking whether Romney intends for the government to actually do fewer things, and, if so, which ones. If the answer is that, no, Romney promises efficiency, then the question is about the evidence that agency (or levels of government) musical chairs will save money or lead to more effective government performance.

It’s certainly possible that Romney has good answers to those questions — and it’s also possible that he has nothing more than feel-good rhetoric, and an assumption that he’ll be able to get away with slipping around between these very different types of promises. Reporters who want to understand what a Romney budget would look like should avoid that trap.