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.
The GSA is a really important agency. Its negotiations of leases for government properties can save, or cost, taxpayers billions of dollars every month. The agency needs top employees skilled in commercial real estate. Recruiting and retaining top talent is not easy. If it all goes to the commercial real estate firms and developers, we can expect taxpayers to get fleeced.
The administration reacted swiftly to the news stories about the scandal — in a fashion reminiscent of how it handled the Shirley Sherrod case. After GSA Administrator Martha Johnson resigned, two top officials were quickly fired without any examination of what role, if any, they had played in the conference.
One of them, Bob Peck, the head of the GSA’s Public Buildings Section, is someone I have known since he drafted legislation to restore Union Station when he worked for the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In his second tour at the GSA, Peck dramatically changed the government’s energy usage in buildings at a huge savings, reduced the amount of space occupied by agencies and saved money and improved services in countless other ways. He has been a model public servant — just the kind of person we want and need at the top levels of government.
When you put together the bureaucracy-bashing, the pay freezes, the out-of-control confirmation process for political appointees, the increasingly difficult circumstances for our elite managers in the Senior Executive Service and the sharp cutbacks in funding across nearly all agencies even as they are asked to do more and more with less and less, it is hard to come to an uplifting conclusion.
Lots of future Bob Pecks will look at what happens when you put yourself in the crosshairs of public service — especially in critical jobs that get little public acclaim — and say “never mind.”
This scandal obviously merits Congressional attention and oversight. But four hearings — to start — with members of both parties lined up in front of the cameras with their two-by-fours? No.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.