May/June 2012

The Illusion of Accountability

Cato's H. L. Mencken Research Fellow, Penn Jillette, the famous illusionist and larger, louder partner of the Penn & Teller act, is also a bit of a political philosopher. Penn argues that illusionists are much like politicians. They want the audience to look here when the real action is going on there.

A prime example of the Penn Effect is the furor over the Government Services Administration multi-day party in Las Vegas. It cost the American taxpayers $830,000! OMG! Let's have congressional hearings! Lots of them! (Four at last count.) It happened in Las Vegas and that means television cameras at the hearings which means lots of hearings. All the posturing congresscritters are in their committee seats, ready for some serious bi-partisan posturing.

My favorite posturer is Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "The impression they conveyed by these documents," Representative Cummings railed, "is that Mr. Neely [a senior GSA mucky-muck] and his wife believed they were some sort of agency royalty who used taxpayers' funds to bankroll their lavish lifestyle. They disregarded one of the most basic tenets of government service. It's not your money. It's the taxpayers' money."

Huzzah! for Representative Cummings. Well said. Of course, one could point out that the federal government spent much more than $830,000 during the time the congressman was speaking. Or that the National Taxpayers Union gave Elijah Cummings a grade of F in its fiscal responsibility rankings last year. Apparently the good congressman is less concerned about "other people's money" when the cameras are off. But why pick nits? We have a $3.7 trillion federal budget and if we could have saved that $830,000 we'd only have a, well, $3.7 trillion federal budget.

Cato Institute scholars, in solidarity with Representative Cummings and the dozens of others in Congress who have participated in lengthy hearings to get to the bottom of this GSA scandal, have offered up some additional areas into which Congress might look. Perhaps not as scandalous as these GSA outrages, but, then again, perhaps so.

The GSA spent $3,200 on a session with a mind reader.
Getting the government out of the housing business — HUD, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and much more — would save at least $45 billion annually.

The GSA spent $6,325 on commemorative coins in velvet boxes to reward all attendees for coming to the party.
Ending the futile crusade called the federal War on Drugs and the consequent abuse of our civil liberties would save at least $20 billion. And let tens of thousands of people out of jail who do not belong there.

The GSA spent $75,000 for a "team-building" exercise by building bicycles.
Cutting federal workers' pay by just 10 percent to bring it more in line with salaries of the private sector workers whose taxes pay federal workers would save at least $20 billion annually.

The GSA spent $31,000 on a networking reception that included $7,000 of sushi and a $19/person "American artisanal cheese display" (whatever that is).
Federal education programs (find the word "education" in the Constitution) have cost Americans $1.85 trillion since 1965, without noticeably improving outcomes. Eliminating them would save at least $60 billion annually. The GSA spent $1,840 on vests for the 19 regional GSA "ambassadors."

By eliminating unnecessary overseas military missions such as Iraq and Afghanistan and creating a leaner defense budget, we could save at least $100 billion a year.

The problem is that, like the GSA partygoers, members of Congress tend to forget that it truly is not their money they are spending. Taking seriously the enumerated and therefore limited powers given to the federal government in the Constitution (and clearly reinforced by the 10th Amendment) requires serious congressional hearings on downsizing government — not frivolous show hearings. Save Cato.

Edward H. Crane is the founder and president of the Cato Institute.