Amnesia and stupidity

    To fully appreciate the power of amnesia, you need only track the Republican reaction to the latest scandal at the General Services Administration.I stress the word latest, because the GSA – the Washington agency that leases office space, and provides office furniture and equipment, to federal workers – has long been a hotbed of misbehavior, dating back many decades. Although you’d never know any of that history if you listened only to the willful amnesiacs who seem to think that the world began on January 20, 2009.You may have heard about the spending spree in Las Vegas. It’s been all over the news; two House committees have already held hearings this week. Clearly, what happens in Vegas doesn’t necessarily stay in Vegas – especially when the miscreants are government bureaucrats doing business on the public dime. The attendees at the GSA’s 2010 Western Regional Conference ran up a tab of $823,000 – for stuff like commemorative coins (six grand), a hotel room party (nearly three grand), a “team-building” exercise (75 grand), and a mind reader (three grand). The GSA guy who planned the conference, Jeff Neely, clammed up Monday by taking the Fifth.Republicans are outraged. Congressman Jeff Denham said, “This is about the waste of taxpayer dollars (at a time when) we have got double-digit employment, the highest foreclosure rate in the nation, people out of work.” Congressman Trey Gowdy said that the expenditures were “laughable and perhaps criminal.” Congressman Darrell Issa said that the GSA attendees basically “stole money” from the taxpayers. Out in the blogosphere, conservatives are predictably heralding this GSA episode as “the first Obama scandal.” The policy director at Americans for Prosperity (a mouthpiece for the billionaire Koch brothers), says this GSA episode is “emblematic of the president’s vision for an expansive role of government in society.”

    OK. Let’s take a deep breath.The Vegas hijinks were absolutely a waste of taxpayers money. There is no defending what happened. And taking the Fifth always looks bad. The agency deserves to be fully rebuked. And that $823,000 surely could have been spent on something way better.But let’s not kid ourselves, folks. In the grand scheme of things, $823,000 is lint in Uncle Sam’s pocket.To put that tab in perspective, consider the Bush-era tenure of GSA chief Lurita Doan, who personally overruled three top aides and awarded a sweetheart contract to a company, Sun Microsystems, that was already under investigation for allegedly overcharging the government millions of dollars. The GSA inspector general (the agency’s in-house watchdog) wrote in an ’07 report: “As a direct consequence of her intervention, and in breach of GSA’s fiduciary duty to the U. S. taxpayers, the pricing concessions made to Sun means that the U. S. taxpayers will inevitably pay far more than they should.” And on another front, Doan was caught trying to steer a GSA contract to a friend with whom she’d worked in public relations – in violation of GSA contract rules.While all that was going on, the GSA inspector general was working with the Justice Department to investigate widespread fraud, bribery, and kickbacks within the agency. Again, the taxpayer waste ran into the millions. Those scandals were already raging in 2004, when the probe began. The probe didn’t end until 2011 – when the last of 11 Bush-era GSA employes and contractors pleaded guilty to a kickback scheme.And let’s not forget David Safavian, the GSA chief of staff who in 2006 was found guilty of an obstruction charge after he tried to cover up his seamy dealings with Republican super-lobbyist (and future prison inmate) Jack Abramoff. Safavian had trekked to Scotland for fun and games, with Abramoff paying the full tab; in return, Safavian had steered government property to Abramoff – most notably the prestigious Old Post Office building in downtown D.C.My point? It should be obvious.No waste of taxpayer money should be tolerated. But the Republicans who are currently huffing and puffing about $823,000 were downright mum when the Bush-era GSA was running wild. Darrell Issa, back then, routinely defended Doan. He and his colleagues never tried to conflate the GSA’s miscues into a general indictment of Bush. There was no general GOP outcry about “wasteful government spending.”My broader point is just as obvious: The GSA has been bad apple for a long time, under presidents of both parties (on Jimmy Carter’s watch as well). Issa was even compelled to admit this on Monday, after his own staff confirmed that the GSA ran up huge excess expenditures during the final two years of the Bush era. Perhaps there’s a cure for amnesia after all. Issa said, “Wasteful spending is a problem that transcends multiple administrations.”Why is that? Because there will always be people in government, in any regime, who somehow think they can do stupid things and not get caught. It’s human nature. And stupidity, a common trait among humans, is relentlessly bipartisan. ——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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