By Jann Futterman
It seems like the political equivalent of a sports cliché; the line that every athlete—and in this case politician—can lean on. It’s as old a line as, “We have to leave everything on the field” and, “We have to give it 110 percent.” It’s the line that every politician can rely on during his or her campaign for office. It is simple and a truism unto itself. It is, “We need to stop wasteful spending.” Indeed, there is no voter who will disagree with this statement, just like no fan would disagree that his team should not “leave everything on the field.”
So when the General Services Administration (GSA), a watchdog agency tasked with stopping wasteful spending and providing internal government “services and workplace solutions at best value to its customer agencies, and achiev[ing] excellence in the business of government” was found to have spent in excess of $822,000 on one “team building” conference, it provided the exact ironic twist on what many believe is a representation of the current state of our political system. http://www.gsa.gov/portal/content/102658 The facts of this situation are well documented. In October of 2010, over 300 GSA employees attended the Western Regional Conference in Las Vegas. The excessive spending at the Conference included “glittering hospitality suites, commemorative coins, breakfasts costing $44.80 a person and a $75,000 ‘team-building exercise’ in which participants built bicycles from scratch.” http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/04/15/2749313/congress-tees-up-hearings-on-gsas.html. However, as more information regarding the GSA comes to light, it appears that the culture of wasted taxpayer money within the agency was much more deep-rooted than initially suspected. In fact, Jeffrey E. Neeley, a senior regional GSA official who was a key figure in planning the conference has had a long history of lavish spending at the expense of taxpayer dollars. Neeley pleaded the Fifth at the hearing.
Upon disclosure of the spending spree, both Democrats and Republicans have joined together in the condemnation of, as the Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) called it, the “absolutely outrageous expenditure of taxpayers’ money.” http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/04/08/durbin-joins-call-for-hearings-on-agencys-vegas-getaway/. In the wake of the scandal, the head of GSA and two other GSA officials resigned, and the Obama Administration has strongly condemned the actions of the agency. Furthermore, two House committees have already launched their own investigations and, Senator Durbin made clear that the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government will hold a hearing on the matter. http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/04/08/durbin-joins-call-for-hearings-on-agencys-vegas-getaway/.
Indeed, this has provided a clear, and very rare example of an almost black and white situation in government. There is a clear line of demarcation separating right and wrong in this debate, and the GSA is on the wrong side of that line. This shameful example of wasteful spending thrusts into the spotlight the extent to which the government can potentially misallocate federal dollars. However, everyone would be wrong to think that it ends here. While this scandal has provided a clear example of wasteful spending, it is not the extent of it.
Last year the federal deficit was $1.3 trillion, and much has been made of the federal budget. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) even went so far as to put together what he considered to be 100 unnecessary government projects in what he called “2011 Wastebook: A Guide to Some of the Most Wasteful and Low Priority Government Spending of 2011.” http://www.forbes.com/sites/dougbandow/2012/01/16/nows-the-time-to-start-cutting-wasteful-government-programs/. Included on the list is a USAID four-year, $90 effort to spur hiring and sales among Pakistani businesses, a $14 million construction project to convert three Alaskan radar stations from diesel to wind turbine energy using stimulus funds, and, of course, the famous “bridge to nowhere”
On Monday, GSA officials gathered for the first time to speak about the spending scandal before the House Oversight Committee. This was the first of at least four hearings to be held on the scandal this week. At the hearing, “members of Congress highlighted some of the scandal’s most egregious details” and represented the first step in holding the primary players in the scandal accountable. ttp://abcnews.go.com/Politics/OTUS/congressional-gsa-hearing-jeff-neely-targeted-scandal/story?id=16151475&page=2#.T4zH8e24LzI. And while House members did not hold back in Monday’s hearing, it will be interesting to see how the investigation is handled and whether Congress chooses to use this as a springboard to draw a harder line on wasteful government spending. While this occurred under the Obama Administration, it is clear that lavish spending has not only been a problem since 2008. In fact, as Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), Chairman of the House Oversight Committee points out, over-the-top spending by the GSA existed under the Bush Administration as well. Thus, the problem here is one that goes beyond party lines or presidential administrations.
It is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture at issue here. While the GSA convention has provided a clear example of wasteful government spending, it would be irresponsible to assume that it ends there. The whole fiasco with the GSA is a poetically simple embodiment of the culture of wasteful spending that occurs within Washington. And while there is no easy solution, one would hope that this scandal will force government officials to finally hold each other accountable. Moving forward, it is important that government officials set into place certain instruments to prevent such future acts of government abuses of fiscal discretion. It is also important that we, as citizens, hold the government accountable for such acts of blatant disregard.