Why do agencies of the U.S. government make such heavy use of Federal Express?

No, that’s not a riddle. It’s a serious question. I have been dealing with a number of Federal bureaucrats—never mind why—and it seems that almost invariably they communicate by Federal Express. Next day service, too, not the cheaper 48-hour rate.

Has anyone else noticed this? Hands up—yes, I thought so.

I think I have it figured out, and it’s not just that the U.S. Postal Service, like Savings Bonds, is for the rubes, who don’t know any better. It all comes back to the strategic failure of the. Reagan Administration.

Ronald Reagan has surprised me twice, so far. If anyone had told me while I watched him give The Speech for Barry Goldwater back in ’64 that he would someday be’ President, I’d have sneered. But I’d have been wrong. If anyone had told me, back in 1980, that after six years of his Presidency, there’d have been nothing much in the way of structural change in our bloated, officious, smothering government, I’d have sneered again. And been wrong again.

Let’s face it: the Reagan Administration may be a public relations success, but it has been a substantive flop. I should have seen the signs right after the election of 1980. I was dealing with one of the many Federal agencies that gives away money to the undeserving and/or well-to-do (like me: go ahead, say it). An acquaintance on the staff confided to me that he and his co-workers were very worried. “They’re talking about cutting our budget in half,” he told me. “They say we may have to take a 10 percent cut in staff.” (We were on the telephone, so he couldn’t see my expression.)

Fifty percent budget cut = 10 percent staff reduction. There you have in a nutshell the argument for abolishing programs rather than simply cutting them back. There was one brief shining moment in the winter of 1980-81 when inside-the-beltway types feared the worst from this Hollywood madman. Nothing he could have done would have surprised them. They saw him as a berserk right-wing loonie who had unaccountably been elected in a landslide and who was certainly going to shake things up beyond recognition. And he blew it.

Now, the agency I’ve been dealing with lately is one of the least necessary of the hundreds of Federal bureaus, commissions, agencies. It doesn’t do a great deal of harm only because it doesn’t do a great deal of anything: certainly it’s one of the ones most Reagan voters would miss least. If I’d thought about it at all back in 1981, I’d have assumed it was destined to disappear in the Great Shake-Up.

But of course that didn’t happen. Instead, this agency is one of the many that the Reagan Administration has more or less hobbled, without inflicting any permanent or serious injury. At the top, Reaganites come and (if they’re halfway competent) go. They put in their stretch in this bureaucratic Siberia, try to keep it from getting in the papers any more than necessary, spend the budget that Congress insists this enterprise deserves, and are eventually rewarded by better jobs in agencies that the Administration obviously cares more about. While they’re in place, the permanent staff regard them with undisguised hostility, as interlopers who will be replaced after the next Democratic victory.

These people, administrators and staff, are the ones who keep sending me missives by Federal Express. At first I thought it was outrageous that this grotesquely expensive form of communication was used to transmit the trivial stuff that I was getting, but I have come to realize that spending money is the point. The political appointees at the top are happy to see the agency’s money spent on mailing unimportant messages around the country: At least it does no harm. The permanent staff people are content to hunker down and wait out the Reaganites, but, in classic bureaucratic fashion, they want to spend everything allotted to them so that no one will propose to cut their budget for next year.

Does anyone have a better explanation? It’s a hypothesis anyway, and if I’m right, there’s a nice play in Federal Express stock for anyone who can predict the outcome of the 1988 election. Remember: you read it here first.