Stakes High For Dems as GSA Scandal Hearings Begin

“We're looking at getting to the truth and to how widespread this is. Our questions for Neely and others will have to do with not just this one event, but about the culture at the GSA and how we change it.”

-- Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., head of the House Oversight Committee, talking to reporters about the now-suspended General Services Administration regional director accused of planning a lavish Las Vegas getaway for agency employees. Neely and other current and former agency officials are slated to testify in hearings starting today before Issa’s committee.

There has been bipartisan outrage over the now-infamous awards conference held by the General Services Administration for a cost of more than $800,000 at a Las Vegas resort. But Republicans are the ones who sense a political opportunity.

In the first of four hearings this week, two in the Republican controlled House and two in Democratic-controlled Senate, voters may get the chance to see Jeff Neely, the regional director blamed for the lavish 2010 getaway invoking his constitutional right against self-incrimination.

Neely can “plead the Fifth” because the Obama Justice Department last week announced the inception of a criminal investigation into the scandal-soaked 2010 gathering. The announcement was a twofer – it demonstrates concern on the part of the president but also gives current and former agency officers a reason to not answer questions from Republican inquisitors.

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    Neely, he of the $2,700 in-suite party and $6,325 commemorative coin sets, may have been particularly enthusiastic about overspending, but the very fact that he was granted a $9,000 bonus by the agency’s since-resigned director, Martha Johnson, for his work in developing the awards program for the agency suggests there are cultural problems far beyond a single ill-conceived gathering.

    The goofy employee videos, the Hawaii trips and other improvident spending have confirmed that the GSA is an agency with serious problems – certainly under Obama appointee Johnson and maybe for decades before.

    But GSA is small fry by government standards. With a fewer than 13,000 employees and a budget of less than $21 billion, GSA looks like a rounding error in a federal government that boasted 2.8 million total civilian employees with an average salary of $73,908 (excluding postal employees) in fiscal year 2010.

    What are the 67,000 employees of the Interior Department or the 64,000 Department of Health and Human Services workers up to? Maybe they are the models of fiscal probity and restraint, but if the government’s property managers could get away with such shenanigans for years it makes voters wonder what is lurking in some of the largest bureaucracies.

    You can expect to see two threads in this week’s GSA hearings: institutional failure versus individual malfeasance.

    Republicans will burrow in on the idea that the problems in GSA were a result of an inherently corrupt system unaccountable to the taxpayers who fund it. Democrats, meanwhile, will focus on individual mistakes and avow that such abuses will “never happen again.”

    Democrats have joined the pile-on, even though it is embarrassing to the administration for two reasons. For some, like Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, a re-election bid in a red-tinted swing state may depend on showing intolerance for waste inside the administration of a president of her own party. For others, like Sen. Dick Durbin, whose Appropriations Committee will take up the matter later this week, the stakes are in a way, even larger.

    President Obama’s re-election depends on his pitch that government can do more. Particularly on the issue of health insurance and entitlement programs, the president says that voters this year have a choice between Republicans who want to leave Americans on their own and the vision of Obama Democrats who can do more to protect and lift up struggling citizens.

    But would anyone want the team from GSA to administer his or her health insurance or manage the multi-trillion-dollar new health entitlement program? That guy with the ukulele singing in the video – would he be a good fit for approving insurance claims post-2013?

    Abuses so egregious as those in the GSA remind American voters of an underlying distrust for the federal bureaucracy and a long-standing suspicion that government work is conducted at lower levels of quality and difficulty than work in the private sector.

    The Democratic message this year is that it has been a lack of money that has limited government’s capacity to solve more of society’s ills and that Republicans, in cahoots with the greedy rich, have driven tax rates too low to finance a federal government that is up to the task.

    If Durbin and McCaskill can’t demonstrate that what went on at GSA was an aberration driven by the bad judgment of a few, Republicans will use the actions of the bureaucrats there as a metaphor for the entire federal government.

    Senate Democrats cannot afford to allow the GOP to use this stupid scandal to undermine the president’s call for a more powerful bureaucracy and higher taxes with which to finance it.

    The Day in Quotes

    “That's not the way we operate our tax system, okay? We don't run bake sales. It's not about volunteerism. We all kick in according to the system.”

    -- President Obama’s chief political strategist, David Axelrod, on “FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace” explaining why the president would not volunteer to pay at the same tax rate as his secretary.

    “$53 million”

    -- Combined fundraising for March announced by the Obama re-election campaign and the Democratic National Committee, up from $45 million in February. The Republican National Committee raised $13.7 million last month. Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney has not yet released his March fundraising totals. He raised $12 million in February.

    -- President Obama at a joint press conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos about allegations that members of his Secret Service advance team patronized prostitutes and were involved in a dispute over paying for their services.

    "Frankly I don't think the Taliban is good enough.”

    -- American Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker on the Cable News Network attributing a daylong siege of the Afghan capital Kabul to Pakistan-based members of a Pashtun tribal militant group, the Haqqani Network.

    “50 percent”

    -- Portion of independent voters in a new Gallup survey who feel that their federal income taxes are too high.

    “34 percent”

    -- Portion of Democrats in a new Gallup survey who feel that their federal taxes are too high.

    "I can't think of a time when I felt it was more important for us to defeat an incumbent president today with respect to Barack Obama. I think he has been an unmitigated disaster to the country.”

    -- Former Vice President Dick Cheney, in his first public appearance following a heart transplant, speaking at the Wyoming Republican Party’s state convention on Saturday.

    “The choice in this election is between economy that produces a growing middle class and that gives people a chance to get ahead and their kids a chance to get ahead, and an economy that continues down the road we are on…”

    -- President Obama’s chief political strategist, David Axelrod, on “FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace.

    Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on