New Castle News

May 7, 2012

Mitchel Olszak: Lavish spending reflects badly on government

Mitchel Olszak
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Boy, those federal employees sure now how to live it up. At least that’s the impression.

Recent revelations about a 2010 conference conducted by the General Services Administration have made it a symbol for government excess and arrogance. The conference cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and included such expenses as magicians and commemorative medals.

Congress — no slouch when it comes to dubious spending — was outraged over the reports and summoned GSA brass to hearings. One top official pleaded the Fifth Amendment rather than answer some pointed questions about his spending habits.

These and other stories that have cropped up about lavish GSA programs make people wonder about their government. Who are these guys working for: Us or themselves?

And why should taxpayers foot the bill for this nonsense?

Well, it turns out that taxpayers didn’t support GSA conferences, at least not directly. The money came from a different source.

The GSA is the federal agency that oversees government buildings and other facilities. As part of this work, it solicits bids and authorizes contracts for construction, renovation and the like.

It seems that the GSA charges these contractors fees, which are used to run the agency. In particular, Congress is looking into reports that the agency was authorizing federal tax credits for energy projects, if the contractors paid the GSA 19 percent of the money they saved.

These and other funds covered various GSA operations. And that apparently includes conferences.

This is touted as a prudent way to conduct government activities without burdening taxpayers. But if you or I did this, we’d be accused of soliciting kickbacks and we would face criminal charges.

Congress is now looking deeper into what the GSA was doing. Yet the implication is clear: The agency may have established a slush fund with contractor money that was used to pay for expensive outings for staff.

If so, the GSA became the victim of a self-created monster. It’s common practice — in both the public and private sector — for institutions to make every effort to spend all of the money allocated to them. The thinking is that if budgeted funds aren’t expended, the money will be taken away and future allocations will be decreased.

In these circumstances, offices and departments may look for creative ways to use funds in order to justify getting them again next year.

If that is indeed what happened with the GSA, then Congress needs to correct it. The unseemly excess of the agency puts all of government in a bad light.

The reality is there are plenty of federal employees who don’t get trips to Las Vegas on the public’s dime. They work diligently and responsibly. And because of that, you never hear about them. Scandal is always bigger news than good work done responsibly.

Congress needs to rein in the GSA and others entities that abuse the funds available. And it needs to do so not only for the benefit of taxpayers, but for the benefit of those in government who don’t deserve this sort of reputation.