We are in the midst of four Congressional hearings on the over-the-top General Services Administration conference in 2010 in Las Vegas.
In the 112th Congress, where major accomplishments include naming dozens of post offices and where the number of public laws passed, conference reports, hours in session and other indicators of workload have dropped like a rock compared with predecessors, four hearings on anything is something to note.
In this case, what it means makes me more uneasy — maybe even depressed — than anything else.
I do not intend to excuse the behavior that some GSA officials exhibited in this conference, not to mention their arrogance and gross insensitivity to the plight of the country in the midst of a continuing economic struggle.
But the rush by Senate Democrats and House Republicans to exploit the scandal is unsightly. And in the process of showing their outrage, done in part to deflect attention from Congress’ own low approval ratings and in part just to grab the tar and feathers and run out ahead of the press and public, there will be a lot of collateral damage.
Let’s start by stepping back from the headlines and hype. This “team-building” conference was way too lavish and involved stupid gimmicks — such as a clown and a magician — that are often part of such conferences in the private sector but are neither smart nor necessary.
The conference spent $823,000 of taxpayer money, including $3,000 for the clown and $6,500 for commemorative medals. Parse that out. There were 300 GSA officials from the Western region at the conference, so the costs — including airfare, hotel, meals, receptions, stupid gimmicks and prizes — came to about $2,700 a person over four days. That is not cheap but is well within the range of comparable private-sector conferences. The clown cost $10 an attendee, and the medals cost about $22 a person.
But just because private companies and trade associations hold comparable meetings to reward employees, build morale and spur motivation does not mean government agencies should emulate them.
One insightful column in the Washington Post business section said that maybe the best outcome from the GSA brouhaha would be that more organizations would stop doing these conferences, which are often viewed by employees as a waste of time. In the Post, Suzy Khimm made a strong additional point: The GSA, more than most agencies, interacts intimately with private companies as it negotiates leases for public buildings and engages with contractors for government purchases and services, and some GSA executives probably felt on solid ground emulating their private-sector counterparts.
None of that excuses bad behavior or a blindness to the different role of public servants. We know that the agency had a “Hats Off” award program for employees who could earn prizes for exemplary behavior by accumulating the equivalent of green stamps and then using them to “buy” prizes such as iPods from “Hats Off” stores. It appears that security at the Western Region “Hats Off” store was lax and that some of the prizes were stolen; there are allegations that others were taken by top officials for their own use. But even here, context matters. The Post noted, for example, in a story on the IG report that “one employee, whose name was redacted from the report, gave ‘635 awards to 113 individuals, totaling $3,175.’” Wow — 635 awards averaged exactly $5, and the 113 individuals got a lavish $28 worth of prizes each.
Lois Lerner, director of exempt organizations for the IRS, arrives for a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the investigation of the IRS' targeting of political groups. Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right to not testify and caused a protest from some committee members when she offered an opening statement and engaged in dialogue with members before invoking the right.
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