By MARSHA MERCER
Nobody ever woke up to a front-page news story about government frugality. That would be a dream.
It’s not news when federal workers actually do their jobs and are careful stewards of the people’s money. But this week Americans learned that federal bureaucrats at the General Services Administration had willfully blown through nearly a million dollars on a conference at a posh resort near Las Vegas in October 2010.
“GSA rocked by spending scandal,” read the headline on the lead story in Tuesday’s Washington Post.
The “Management Deficiency Report” by GSA’s inspector general describes in exquisite, and maddening, detail the excess of managers in the Public Building Service while they planned and put on the four-day conference. An administrator insisted that the meeting be “over the top,” bigger and better than any before, and ignored suggestions of ways to pare costs.
Three hundred employees of the western regional offices of the Public Building Service, the agency that manages federal workspace, gathered at the M Resort Spa and Casino for supposed training that included lavish receptions, dinners and party favors. And that was after federal managers paid a consultant $12,000 to find possible locations for the conference. The managers also took repeated trips to scout out the venues. Planning alone cost $136,500.
The inspector general concluded that “many of the expenditures on this conference were excessive and wasteful and that in many instances GSA followed neither federal procurement laws nor its own policy on conference spending.”
The chief of the GSA fired two deputies and then resigned, and several managers were placed on administrative leave.
There will be more to this story. It is after all an election year, and Congress and the White House were shocked, shocked. To be fair, we’ve not seen much in the way of federal spending scandals in the Obama term. But this is a doozy. President Barack Obama was outraged, and senators and representatives decried the waste and abuse.
For the taxpayers who foot the bills and pay the salaries, the scandal broke at a sensitive moment. Preparing our tax returns, we inevitably think about what we’re getting for our money. I don’t know about you but when I’m looking at how much I’m paying in federal taxes, I focus on the National Institutes of Health and the National Park Service.
“Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society,” 20th century Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said, and his words are inscribed on the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington. Alas, Holmes’s fine words ring hollow this week.
Civilized society? No, taxes are what we pay to entertain federal workers -- $32,000 for a mind reader, $44-a-person breakfasts, $6,000 on specially minted commemorative coins, $75,000 for a team-building exercise that involved assembling two dozen kids’ bicycles. Really, I want my money back.
We don’t get to choose how our tax dollars are spent, of course. We have to trust the government to get it right. The sad truth is, we don’t.
Trust in government is at rock bottom, and the new IG report offers 822,751 new reasons for Americans to distrust their government. That’s how much GSA spent on the conference, $822,751.
In Holmes’s quote – “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society”—“we” implies a shared commitment to a common vision for society and a shared belief in the power of government to help.
That sense of community and that fundamental compact between people and government are threatened. Too much of our language is aimed at separating us, focusing on what makes us different rather than united. We need leaders who will help us refresh and renew the compact.
The good news in all this is that the inspector general’s office did its work. It devoted a year to find out what really happened, and the investigation had consequences. People did lose their jobs, something that occurs rarely in the federal government.
But we never will be able to retrieve the money we burned for 300 shrimp at $4 apiece in a rich resort outside Las Vegas. Taxpayer dollars were squandered there, and so was taxpayer trust.
© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.