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Needless federal red tape -- GOP Senator Roth can't wait to attack it

The litany of complaints was familiear: entangling red tape, cumbersome regulations, layers of bureaucracy. But it came from an unlikely quarter: top federal bureaucrats.

"If I had closed my eyes," Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R) of Delaware recalls of a dinner-meeting last week with senior Washington civil servants, "I could have imagined myself listening to a group of state governors or small-business men back home."

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The incongruity of the experience crinkles his long, ruddy face into a wry grin, but he draws from it a sober observation.

The spectacle of bureaucrats becoming frustrated with their own bureaucracy is, to him, the crowning evidence of "a growing consensus" that government must be streamlined.

As the prospective chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, the panel charged with tending the machinery of government, he is well positioned to do something about it. And he intends to.

His agenda for making government work better in the 1980s begins, oddly enough, with an idea from the 1940s: a top-to-bottom study of the federal bureaucracy by a bipartisan commission modeled after the Hoover Commission of 1947.

"Part of our problem is that we've too much looked at things piecemeal," Senator Roth explains."Somebody needs to take an overview."

Like the commission headed by Herbert Hoover, he envisions a successor group chaired by a former president -- perhaps even jointly by both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter --

The federal government's "organizational nightmare" has long rankled this management-minded senator, who holds a master's degree in business administration from Harvard (as well as a law degree). He has quietly pushed the study-commission idea since elected to Congress 14 years ago.

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Now, with its chief proponent propelled into the chairmanship by the Republicans' unexpectedly capturing control of the Senate last month, its inclusion in the GOP platform, and its endorsement by influential Democratic lawmakers, a new "Hoover Commission" may be ready to materialize.

"It stands a good chance," the senator allows.

Once the federal bureaucracy is pruned to size, under the recommendations of a study commission, it may be kept trimmed by another management idea that the incoming chairman shows interest in reviving: a "sunset" law requiring most government programs to justify their continuance every 10 years.

This once-bright legislative proposal has all but sunk below the congressional horizon recently, but intervention by the new chairman might restore some of its old glitter. "The basic concept," he says, "is sound."

In any reshaping of the federal bureaucracy that may lie ahead, the prime candidates for abolition targeted by the newly triumphant Republican conservatives would appear to be the recently created Departments of Energy and Education.

But Roth is one fully accredited conservative who does not join in such calls. He supported both new departments, to which the committee that he is about to chair served as legislative midwife. (And he even seeks creation of a further new cabinet-level department dealing with international trade).

One feature of big government that he is eager to chop, however, is unnecessary regulation.

He discounts the recent deregulation of many of the federal controls on industries such as airlines, trucking, and banking. "We really haven't done much," he insists.

Rather than just deregulating selected industries, he favors comprehensive legislation "cross-cutting all [government] agencies" to simplify the regulations they impose and weed out those that are confusing, inconsistent, or outdated.

"The trouble is," he says, "we never take anything off the books."

The chairman-to-be also hopes to make Washington more responsive to its governmental partners in the federal system: the states and localities.

Instead of frequently forcing officials of these smaller governments to traipse to numerous federal agencies to get a matter resolved, Roth says Washington ought to work toward a goal of "one-stop" decisionmaking.

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