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GSA Scandal Exposes Waste of Congress' Time


April 24, 2012

By Melanie Sloan

Melanie SloanOriginally posted on The Hill's Congress Blog - 4.18.12

The revelation that the General Services Administration (GSA) spent $823,000 on a conference in Las Vegas exposed waste on a grand scale – the colossal waste of time by members of Congress rushing to investigate what’s already been investigated and punish those already punished.

We all know what happened at the conference. Government employees hired a clown. They hired a mentalist (albeit not a very good one, since he apparently failed to predict the media and congressional frenzy that would follow). They produced videos gloating about their own extravagance.

But even if one assumes that there should have been no conference at all, and every penny was wasted, surely there are far better uses for Congress’ time than “investigating” $823,000 in waste, an amount aptly characterized by NPR’s On the Media as “less than a rounding error in the budget of the executive branch.”

For starters, Congress could examine the bureaucracy the government built in response to 9/11, described in 2010 by The Washington Post as “so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.”

“No one” included the secretary of defense at the time, Robert Gates, who told the Post: “I can’t get a number on how many contractors work for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.”

A year before the Post series, Retired Vice Admiral Jack Shanahan told CBS News: "With good financial oversight we could find $48 billion in loose change in [the Pentagon] without having to hit the taxpayers."

Not only does this suggest astronomical waste, there is something else no one really knows: Has all that spending made America more secure? Congress might want to try to find out.

But if that’s too much to ask, perhaps Congress could start smaller. The GSA conference cost less than 1.2 percent of the amount that seven members of Congress won in earmarks for organizations that hired those same members of Congress after they left office, a real scandal that CREW exposed earlier this year.

Yet somehow, the conference is deemed worthy of at least four congressional hearings. By a Fox News estimate, an average congressional hearing costs $125,000. So the hearings themselves may waste more than half as much money as the cost of the entire conference.

Of course one might argue that the issue isn’t the cost, but the cover-up. Except there was no cover-up.  The “scandal” was not exposed by reporters meeting sources in parking garages. No one even had to file a Freedom of Information Act request. The waste was exposed by the GSA’s own inspector general.  Before anyone could demand that those responsible be fired – they were fired. And before anyone could say the problem goes all the way to the top, the person at the top, GSA Director Martha Johnson, resigned.

Of course there is a lot that made this conference a target that’s hard to resist, including a video in which a GSA employee sings about never being a target of the inspector general.

But members of Congress are paid to devote their time and effort to serious issues. In fact, they’re paid a total of more than $94 million per year. That’s more than 114 times the cost of the GSA conference.

They should be putting their time, and our money, to better use.