Opinion

Cabinet officials waste money. Who cares?

The high cost of government travel is not a scandal

As a self-described crusader against the Environmental Protection Agency's "activist agenda," Scott Pruitt should probably not be in charge of safeguarding America's natural resources. But does anybody really care that it cost some $68,000 for the EPA chief to ride around on airplanes and stay in hotels with a hand-picked assortment of flunkies and a Secret Service detail?

Did The Washington Post also write stories like this when Gina McCarthy and Lisa Jackson, Pruitt's predecessors in the Obama administration, were spending eight times as much on the same kind of dopey travel? Does it put things into perspective to have it pointed out that Hillary Clinton's recent visit to India, where she gloated about the economic devastation of Middle America in front of a paying audience, cost taxpayers $22,000 because despite multiple seven-figure advances for ghostwritten memoirs and gazillions of dollars in speaking fees (it helps when you charge college students hundreds of dollars for nose-bleed seats during your book tour) and Bill's successful fleecing of every tycoon and dictator from China to Peru, she still demands free Secret Service protection?

Complaints about double standards are the lowest form of political discourse. Of course our greatest newspapers considered it beneath their dignity to inquire about the cost of routine travel by White House officials only two years ago. Journalists held up their noses when right-wing outlets reported accurately on similar would-be micro-scandals in the Obama administration. Clearly they've changed their minds. It's not even because they are dishonest. It's because they are stupid. It takes about 30 seconds to convince the average American journalistic professional that anything even remotely connected with Trump is an unprecedented world-historic evil. That's why we are suddenly a nation of free-trade enthusiasts, experts on domestic steel and aluminum production, and Chinese history Ph.D.s. It's so tedious and predictable that it's hardly worth pointing out. The real problem is not that most people didn't care about this stuff in 2015; it's that anyone cares about it now.

It would be fine with me if most cabinet-level officials were never allowed to travel except on their own dimes. If they really need to attend that fascinating conference on the future of some vague abstract-sounding topic in Philadelphia, they can stay at the Holiday Inn Express and stand in line with groggy strangers waiting to use the instant waffle machine before 11:00 a.m. like the rest of us. Do most of them actually require extensive security details? Who in the world would ever think of assassinating the head of the EPA or the secretary of agriculture? You get the sense that any mid-level ISIS executive who proposed such a move during a Monday morning conference call would mysteriously find himself ineligible for that year's holiday bonus.

There are a thousand legitimately grotesque things about President Trump and his administration that observers could and should seize upon. His cabinet is full of venal hangers-on, many of whom — Rick Perry at Energy, Betsy DeVos at Education — are on record saying that they don't think their jobs should exist. The ones who do accept the validity of their federal mandates tend to be hilariously incompetent. Ben Carson at HUD admitted that he was unqualified for his position before accepting it; this, and not the fact that he and his wife (almost) bought $31,000 of furniture, is why he shouldn't be there. Helen Foster, the career HUD official who says that watching Carson exceed the $5,000 office décor cap made her vomit on multiple occasions, is either a liar or someone who shouldn't have a job in government or any other mentally demanding area of adult activity. The fact that she considers herself a "whistleblower," as if a couple of fancy chairs were the equivalent of Abu Ghraib, is what is actually emetic.

Governments waste money all the time. We could put John Kerry and Ernest Moniz (remember him?) up at the finest hotel in Zurich and let them play patty-cake over plates of sevruga caviar, white truffle cupcakes, and edible 24 karat gold-leaf-flaked Sour Patch Kids and bottles of Cristal every night for the rest of their lives. The combined tab would look like a rounding error in comparison with what the Pentagon routinely "loses" or spends on fighter jet programs that are too big — $1.5 trillion and counting — to fail.

Sometimes it is okay to be cynical and complacent.

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