This Tuesday, officials from the Government Services Agency were paraded before a Congressional committee and interrogated about the agency’s $823,000 conference in Las Vegas. This same week, U.S. officials opened an investigation on a group of Secret Service agents who threw a hotel room party, possibly involving prostitutes, while waiting for President Obama’s arrival in Colombia. These scandals have led politicians on both sides of the aisle to denounce the “culture of fraud, waste, and corruption” among Washington bureaucrats. During the GSA hearing, Transportation subcommittee chairman Jeff Denham commented that given activities like these, “We wonder why there is so much mistrust in government.”
Congressman Denham, you should not be so quick to judge. It is not mistrust in bureaucratic officials and their inclinations to party, but mistrust in our nation’s political leaders, that is truly damaging. Over the past 30 years, Congress’ approval rating has fallen from a pretty bad 39 percent after the 2012 election to an abysmal 12 percent in the latest polls. It is Congress’ inability to tackle effectively the defining issues of our time that is truly detrimental. While Congress berates these bureaucrats, it is distracted from more important matters. Our country still has no clear plan about our energy future. We still lack a plan to fix our broken education system. Our infrastructure continues to crumble while Congressional officials opine on government employees’ sex lives.
This is not to say that these scandals should be ignored or thrown under the rug. Government agents hosting parties in Las Vegas or partying in Colombia while on official government business is indeed outrageous, and offenders should be dealt with harshly. Those directly involved in these incidents should be fired if the investigators find evidence suggesting that such punishment is appropriate. The directors of agencies that allow scandalous abuses of power to take place under their watch should also be investigated. However, these investigations do not need to be a matter of public concern. Moreover, members of Congress should not use scandals in government agencies to distract Americans from the real issues at hand. They must not harp on agency abuses in order to cast themselves, in contrast, as exemplar government officials and defenders of the taxpayer.
Last summer, Congress muddled through negotiations over how to decrease our deficit and deal with our debt problem. Many politicians focused on the need to cut waste, fraud, and abuse, and ignored the more important need to raise taxes and enact entitlement reform. In the end, Congress’s inability to focus on core issues simply kicked the can down the road. It eventually passed on the responsibility of deficit report to a supercommittee, and enacted automatic cuts if this supercommittee failed to find those cuts (which it did). Still, those automatic cuts are tepid, and Congress can cancel them if it wishes to. Congress has still failed to address key, foundational issues, leaving Americans with a temporary and unsustainable solution to the deficit crisis. This uncertainty is worse for the taxpayer than the recent GSA and Secret Service scandals. It is no less wasteful for our money to be thrown away on unnecessary interest payments than on bureaucrats’ parties.
The United States rates a respectable 7.1 out of 10 on the Corruption Perceptions Index. Unlike many countries, in which government employees regularly embezzle and abuse taxpayer dollars, America has a fairly good record on government accountability, and structures to investigate any abuses. These parties were singular incidents and to portray them as otherwise is disingenuous.
Therefore, it would do the country well for Congress to quickly deal with these transgressions and get back to work that really matters.
José I. Robles ’15 lives in Canaday Hall.