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The most outrageous clowns are in Congress

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WASHINGTON — When a scandal like the GSA’s $823,000 trip to Las Vegas comes along, you see that it takes truly risible details, like an actual clown in attendance, to move the outrage dial in Washington.

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I mean no disrespect to anyone else’s outrage about the sushi bar, the mind reader, the commemorative coins or the professional photographer to document it all. Feel free to remain outraged over those details. What’s truly outrageous, however, or at least depressing, is that in scandals like this, too often we get all the maddening details but none of the satisfying consequences.

In the case of this scandal at the General Services Administration, heads actually rolled. Your run-of-the-mill boondoggle, of which there are hundreds in government, doesn’t get anyone fired. It is normally done in plain sight: Photographs of boondoggles and junkets decorate the walls of many a bureaucrat’s office.

It’s almost enough to make you wonder whether government buildings have meeting rooms or coffee carts. Consider these conferences, every bit as expensive as the GSA’s, highlighted by Bloomberg.

In 2008, after there were rumblings about a crackdown on jaunts, the Drug Enforcement Administration hauled its employees to Istanbul — would Sin City have sent the wrong signal? — for $1.18 million. For two coffee breaks, the charge was $104 per person. That makes the now-infamous $16 muffin for a conference in Washington seem like a bargain — after all, as organizers later pointed out, that amount included coffee, tea, juice, fruit and even pastries.

Back in the United States, the Justice Department decided that a single-day conference on sex offenders could only be done justice in Palm Springs, Calif., at a cost of $90,201 — or $626 per person.

A shelf in the office of Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma groans under the dozens of reports he has done on ridiculous government expenditures (he has documented more than $200 billion in overlapping and duplicative programs) and more than $200 million in silly conferences. Titles go from “Wastebook 2011” to “Subsidies for the Rich and Famous” to “Shooting the Messenger: Congress Targets the Taxpayers’ Watchdog” (that’s the Government Accountability Office, which does the spadework for Coburn’s tomes).

Little happens, Coburn explains, because Congress is “numb to stupidity and waste,” treating everything as just one more Bridge to Nowhere (which was never built, by the way, but Alaska’s politicians made sure the state still got its money). Congress is bored by oversight. It prefers to plant flowers in the form of new programs, not do the hard work of pulling weeds in the old, bloated and frivolous ones.

Still, who wouldn’t want to put an end to a Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) networking conference that spent $60,000 on cotton candy, popcorn, caramel apples, ice cream and $4 meatballs over four days in 2005? The same year Justice Department employees spent $42,000 to attend a conference with a group that influences congressional and administrative actions - which meant, Coburn says, that employees were spending taxpayers’ money to learn how to influence themselves.

According to Coburn, 2006 was a lucrative year for conference planners, with 2,199 events. One of them involved 15 employees of the Bureau of Prisons flying to Hawaii for a seminar on how Congress works. Apparently an 11-block field trip for some hands-on research in the House and Senate office buildings would have been too tedious.

No party owns this problem, although Republicans traditionally make more of a fuss about waste, fraud and abuse. Of eight particularly wasteful Justice Department conferences documented by Coburn, four happened under President George W. Bush and four under Barack Obama. It’s a wonder politicians — particularly the tea party members who came in on a platform of ending out-of-control spending — aren’t tripping over themselves going after this low-hanging fruit.

Such a campaign would fit in with the proven “broken window” theory of law enforcement: Fix what you can see and ethics change. At the same time, a campaign like this would have to deal with the congressional aphorism “No headlines, no hearings”: The press is inured to this kind of stuff unless it is truly shocking, like an $823,000 trip to Las Vegas with a clown.

The other excuse for not doing anything is that chasing waste, fraud and abuse is a small-bore diversion, since it’s such a tiny fraction of the budget. Republicans use the same argument about raising tax revenue from the top 10 percent.

It is undeniable that neither combatting waste nor raising taxes on the wealthiest 1 percent will do very much to reduce the deficit. So nothing is done. How is nothing working for you?

Coburn, the spiritual godfather of the tea party movement who is leaving the Senate at the end of his term, points out that his amendments to limit government trips are failing by fewer and fewer votes. He finds this heartening. Maybe so. Myself, I prefer outrage.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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