The Bullpen

How to avoid another GSA boondoggle

When a federal agency can get away with using taxpayer money to pay for a Vegas clown, it's time to rethink how we uncover waste, fraud, and abuse

Dana Liebelson

In the age of the iPhone, does anyone still believe that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas? Apparently certain officials from the General Services Administration (GSA) did, until the photos came back to haunt them. By now, the outrageous facts of the GSA scandal are old news: A lavish 2010 conference held by the agency in Las Vegas cost the government $823,000. The money was spent on extravagances like a clown, a mind reader, and a loft suite party. And all taxpayers got was this lousy photo of a boozy GSA commissioner beaming from a hot tub.

After news of the scandal broke, GSA chief Martha Johnson resigned, and other officials were either fired or placed on leave. Multiple hearings were held to address the GSA's "culture of wasteful spending." Democrats and Republicans alike lambasted the agency: President Obama was reportedly "apoplectic" about the scandal, and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney made a gosh-darn-it effort to pin the scandal back on the Obama administration.

Let's stop making puns about clowns, and look for solutions.

Pundits have hashed and rehashed how this scandal (and the subsequent Secret Service debacle) could sway voters come November. But all the political posturing still fails to address the very real problem of government waste — in the GSA and other government agencies — so let's stop making puns about clowns for a minute, and look for solutions. 

There are two well-known approaches to government oversight: "Police patrol oversight" and "fire alarm oversight." The former requires patrollers like inspectors general and government committees to find waste and abuse. The latter gives insiders (like whistle-blowers) and outside actors (like public interest groups) the resources to sound the alarm when they see something suspect. 

The "police" certainly played an important role in digging up this scandal — it was first uncovered by the GSA's inspector general. But in order to prevent another scandal from happening, the U.S. government needs to install more fire alarms. 

One of the best fire alarms that could address problems with spending transparency is the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (referred to as the DATA Act... and yes, there are inexplicably two "acts" in there). The bill, introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), sailed through the House last week by unanimous consent — a rarity in the current hyperpartisan political climate. The House DATA Act and the Senate companion bill (S. 1222) together would be the toughest weapons the public has to defeat waste in the GSA, and every other government agency, to boot. 

The House bill specifically addresses the scandal by cutting the amount federal agencies can spend on conferences by 20 percent. It would also cap the number of U.S. employees who can charge the government for travel expenses to attend international conferences to 50 — unless exceptional permission is given by the secretary of state. 

But more importantly, the DATA Act transforms federal spending transparency and prevents waste, fraud, and abuse by mimicking the successful transparency and accountability in the Recovery Act. The DATA Act would establish an independent commission responsible for monitoring federal spending and making this information public. It would also standardize how government agencies report that information, making it easier for the public to track where exactly taxpayer dollars are going.

"Not even those in government have a solid handle on exactly how taxpayer dollars are being spent," says Angela Canterbury, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO). "The DATA Act would not only allow the government to be better custodians — it also would allow the American people to 'follow the money' and see which companies are receiving federal money and how it is being spent in their communities." 

POGO recently partnered with more than 20 good-government organizations to compose and send a letter in support of the act to the House of Representatives.

The DATA Act has the backing not only of public interest groups but also of the tech companies represented in the Data Transparency Coalition, such as Microsoft.

So passing the DATA Act would be one excellent way to install a fire alarm. But what about the waste and misconduct that falls through the legislative cracks? According to Paul Posner, formerly of the Government Accountability Office, the GSA scandal occurred in part because close collaboration between government agencies and the private sector can lead to a situation where "public servants emulate private sector employees… forgetting that different ethical rules apply. That's something you're not going to get people to talk about." 

Well, that's something we need people to talk about. No one can better recognize what qualifies as inappropriate ethical behavior than government insiders themselves — that's why focusing on whistle-blower protections is especially important in the efforts to prevent another scandal. According to an investigation done earlier this week by The Washington Post's Federal Eye and GovLoop, federal employees often don't feel safe blowing the whistle when they see something wrong — and it's unlikely the GSA scandal will change that.

That's why we need to actively move toward improving whistle-blower protections. The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (S. 743), for example, would protect lawful disclosures made by federal employees by providing safe channels, among other things. It should be passed ASAP, along with the Non-Federal Employee Whistleblower Protection Act (S.241). It also wouldn't hurt to get rid of the awful Whistleblower Improvement Act (H.R. 2483) — a sneakily named piece of legislation that guts financial whistle-blower protections included in the Dodd-Frank Act. If we support whistle-blower protections and advocate for more financial transparency, the public will have some of the tools it needs to stop spending scandals in both the GSA and other government agencies. 

Sure, it would be easier to tell those GSA officials and other federal employees to take a lesson from college students on spring break and keep their debauchery on the down low (i.e., leave the camera behind). But that wouldn't change the fact that some members of our government are spending taxpayer money that U.S. citizens just can't afford to lose.


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