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If Congressional Oversight Is to Be Taken Seriously, It Shouldn't Be Packaged as a Comic Book | Commentary

In December, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma issued his annual “Wastebook” that purports to highlight unnecessary and wasteful government spending both by Congress and by federal agencies.

In this year’s edition, he’s especially critical of the 16-day federal government shutdown. Interestingly, he levels considerably more barbs at how the agencies managed the shutdown than at Congress, citing the closing of veterans memorials and payment of salaries to out-of-work federal employees. He acknowledges that the shutdown was caused “in part because Congress failed to approve even one regular appropriations bill.” I’m curious as to what he believes to have been the true cause of the shutdown, but he fails to disclose this mystery.

One of this year’s highlights is the alleged $3 million NASA is paying the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University to educate NASA personnel about congressional operations. According to Roll Call, NASA was paying the GAI “for a week-long seminar in Washington, in conjunction with Georgetown University, to explain how government works to its civil employees.”

While Coburn’s “Wastebook” acknowledges that the $3 million covers a five-year period, it fails to disclose that the actual cost of the four-day Washington class is less than 1 percent of that amount. Over five years, the competitively awarded contract has a $3 million maximum, although it’s unlikely to reach anything close to that.

Given the fact that the “Wastebook” is fashioned after a comic book, did any of the reporters covering the story pause to fact check whether NASA was really spending $3 million for a weeklong class? It’s well-known that the public’s perception of government is at an all-time low, and much of the criticism is deserved, especially with respect to Congress. It’s also no secret that the media will cover scandals and fraud to a much greater degree than instances of good government.

The Government Affairs Institute, now part of Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, has been providing high-quality, reasonably priced education to federal officials for nearly a half-century. Our mission is to educate federal officials about congressional process and procedure, and to improve communication and the working relationship between the executive branch and Congress. In addition to conducting congressional operations classes for NASA, we educate more than 3,000 federal officials a year and believe that in doing so we help improve the way the federal government works.

Ken Gold is the director of the Government Affairs Institute.

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