If there were ever any doubt that the federal government is out of control, the recent revelations of taxpayer-fueled parties at theGeneral Services Administration (GSA) should put it to rest. Both House and Senate committees this week began digging deeper into the $822,751 shindig the agency hosted at a Las Vegas luxury hotel.
GSA’s mission is to supply everything from the pencils and paper to the buildings the federal leviathan needs to operate. In October 2010, about 300 of the agency’s Western-region employees treated themselves to a lavish vacation at a cost to taxpayers of $2,742 per head. The high-profile scandal has exposed one of thefederal government’s dirty little secrets: Public servants frequently help themselves to the public purse to serve themselves.
Congressional testimony pinned the blame on Public Buildings Service Regional Commissioner Jeff Neely, who was the final word when it came to setting up the Vegas bash featuring clowns and mind readers. Attendees munched on “mini Monte Cristo” sandwiches and “petit beef Wellington.” Each was treated to a $49 breakfast – one of many clear-cut violations of federal rules, according to GSA’s inspector general. The agency watchdog pointed out that even though regulations prohibit commemorative items, the conference spent $8,130 on souvenir books for participants, $3,749 on shirts, $1,840 on casino vests and $6,325 on specially minted coins celebrating President Obama’s stimulus bill.
Not only is Mr. Neely still on the federal payroll, but former GSAAdministrator Martha N. Johnson also gave him a $9,000 bonus while the investigation was under way. “The senior executives were entitled to bonuses,” Ms. Johnson testified Monday in explaining her action. The federal employees involved in this conference likewise thought they were entitled to stay in 2,400-square-foot VIP suites. They felt entitled to bring along spouses at taxpayer expense. They saw nothing wrong with jetting to Vegas for eight scouting trips to “prepare” for the conference.
Similar, but far less lavish, parties took place at GSA under previous administrations, and GSA certainly isn’t the only agency spending big money to keep bureaucrats entertained. Self-dealing is part of Washington culture, but Congress and the administration can do something about it. Mr. Obama should start by issuing guidance cracking down on government conferences that are thinly disguised vacations on the public dime.
Congress needs to back up these policies with a law forcing public employees to pay back – out of their own pockets – any benefits received from improperly used funds. If these employees received advance approval from ethics officials and supervisors, everyone in the chain of command should be held financially accountable for the inappropriate expenditure. Public-sector unions will complain such a system would have a chilling effect on governmental travel.
That’s exactly the point. The bureaucracy’s culture tosses around public money with abandon because it’s not their money. The only way to get them to treat the national Treasury with the respect it deserves is to make sure their wallets are on the line.