‘Defining deviancy down” was how the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan described society’s quiet acceptance of decline. His specific point was that New Yorkers had become docile about stratospheric levels of crime, but he could have said the same thing about Americans’ tolerance for government waste.
On that point, I humbly offer a wake-up call. If you’re still numb about bureaucrats wasting your tax dollars, read the inspector general’s report on the Las Vegas splurge by federal workers. If you don’t get steamed, you’re either dead or brain dead.
You probably heard about the report because the head of the agency involved, the General Services Administration, fired her top deputies, then quit Monday just before it became public. Case closed? Perhaps, but a scandal is a terrible thing to waste. This one is a mini-case study in the argument for shrinking government.
The hot button isn’t so much the total tab — $823,000, which is a pittance in an era of trillion-dollar deficits and $500 million grants to politically connected solar companies.
The outrage lies in the casualness with which 300 employees took their fellow citizens to the cleaners. Bosses knew and approved, with one saying the conference should be “over the top.” It certainly was. They spent months planning, with hardly a peep of dissent. If nothing else, the incident reveals the banality of chiseling.
The workers traveled, ate, slept and had cocktail receptions where they paid $4 for each shrimp. They tipped 22 percent and gave themselves awards and mementos. Some took family members. It was essentially a week’s vacation that they called "work" at a Las Vegas resort.
They cut corners on the same purchasing rules they demand of other federal agencies. They hid costs and made secret deals with the hotel. They used stimulus money to celebrate their use of stimulus money. They were entertained by clowns — and behaved like clowns. They hired a mind reader, yet nobody saw the fallout coming.
They were entitled to splurge because, well, they were entitled. They are our masters. We work for them.
According to the report, one employee — just one! — argued that a team-building exercise devoted to charity should have been done on private time, not work time. The criticism was dismissed.
All this happened when the economy was cratering and unemployment was soaring.
Their conference also came despite President Obama’s ridiculing of financial institutions for wasting federal bailout money. “You can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayers’ dime,” he said in February 2009.
Oh, irony. That was the same month the GSA began soliciting bids for its trip to Vegas on the taxpayers’ dime. Guess they didn’t get the president’s memo, or maybe they didn’t take him seriously.
Why should they? Obama traveled to Vegas to campaign for Harry Reid on Oct. 22, 2010. The GSA blowout started just three days later.
The conference was hard work, by government standards. According to the report, five employees conducted a “scouting trip” to nine hotels as far back as March 2009 — 19 months before the gathering.
Within days, 15 workers returned to scout out two of the hotels, including the Ritz-Carlton and the M Resort.
The M Resort was selected, and seven more employees went back for a “planning meeting.” A second “planning meeting” there drew 11 employees. A third drew 16.
Inexplicably, nine employees attended a “planning meeting” at a Denver hotel. Then it was back to Vegas in June, where 21 employees had, yep, a “planning meeting.”
In August, 31 employees went to the M Resort for a “dry run” of the conference. The planning alone cost you, dear taxpayer, $136,000. Are you steamed yet?
The 23-page report, available online, is written in the dry, matter-of-fact language of the bureaucracy. And why not? There’s nothing unusual here. This is government in all its ordinariness.