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Firemen first or how to beat a budget cut.

This piece appeared in 1976.

Since parsimony is becoming almost as fashionable among politicians today as patriotism was in the 1940s, a wave of budget-cutting seems likely at all levels of government. The results could be salutary, but might be disastrous. To avoid the latter possibility, it is essential to understand how the Clever Bureaucrat reacts to the threat of fiscal deprivation. What the C.B. does, when threatened with a budget reduction, is translate it into bad news for those congressmen who have the power to restore his budget to its usual plenitude.

Thus Amtrak, when threatened with a budget cut, immediately announced that it would be compelled to drop the following routes:

San Francisco-Bakersfield, running through Stockton, the hometown of Rep. John J. McFall, chairman of the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee.

St. Louis-Laredo, running through Little Rock, Arkansas, the home of Senator John McClellan, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Chicago-Seattle, running through the homes of Senator Mike Mansfield, senate majority leader, and Senator Warren Magnuson, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

In the Amtrak case, the C.B.'s budget-cutting enemy was President Ford. Sometimes it is a frugal superior in the C.B.'s own department. His initial response is much the same. If, for example, a secretary of defense from Massachusetts insists upon eliminating useless and outmoded bases, the Navy's C.B. will respond with a list of recommended baseclosings, headed by the Boston Navy Yard.

An irate constituency is, of course, a threat to all elected officials and to every other official who dreams of converting his appointive status into one blessed by the voting public. Thus, as Mike Causey of The Washington Post tells, a National Park Service C.B. who was confronted with a budget cut quickly restored congressmen to their senses by eliminating elevator service to the top of the Washington Monument. Parents whose children insisted on their walking all the way up would be sure to place an outraged call to their congressman. Similarly, you can be certain a Social Security Administration C.B. faced with a budget cut will announce that the result will be substantial delays in the mailing of Social Security checks.

Whenever possible, a C.B. will assert that the budget cut will definitely mean the loss of jobs. And of course the threatened employees are sure to write emotional protests to their congressmen. The C.B.'s concern about the loss of others' jobs is a deeply personal one. He knows you can't be a commander unless you have troops to command. Not long ago Jack Anderson discovered that the Navy, trying to adjust to less money than it had requested, was depriving the fleet of essential maintenance, while continuing to waste billions on useless supercarriers. The reason, of course, is that the more big ships with big crews we have, the more admirals we need.

Rank in the civil service is also determined in part by the number of employees one supervises. Thus, a threat to reduce their number is a threat not merely to the C.B.'s ego but to his income as well.

On the other hand, there are those we don't want to fire-teachers, for example, where teacher-pupil ratios of I to 40 are common. Yet they are the ones the C.B. says he must fire when he is menaced with a budget cut, This tactic is based on the principle that the public will support the C.B.'s valiant fight against the budget reduction only if essential services are endangered. Thus, the C.B. always picks the teachers, policemen, and firemen first.

John Lindsay, when confronted with a 1971-72 budget of only $8.6 billion, said he would have to fire 10,000 policemen, 2,500 firemen, 3,600 garbage workers, 12,000 hospital workers, and 10,800 teachers. In the end, he didn't have to fire anyone. Abe Beame was not so lucky. He threatened to fire 67,000 similarly essential employees, and-when the bastards actually cut his budget-found that he did have to drop 35,000.

There's the rub. If we cut the budget of the C.B. who has bluffed by saying that he will have to fire essential employees, he may-to preserve his credibility-actually have to fire them, instead of the middle-level newspaper-readers who are the real fat, which means we could end up with a government of planning analysts, friends of congressmen, and trains running to Bakersfield via Stockton.
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Title Annotation:The Culture of Institutions
Author:Peters, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1989
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