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.
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.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.