Washington's bureaucratic elites have been rocked by the recent scandal at the General Services Administration that forced the head of the agency to resign in disgrace. The GSA, which handles government properties and purchasing, spent $823,000 on a regional conference for employees in Las Vegas. The officials who organized the conference, after multiple scouting trips to "test out" the best hotels, hired a clown and a mind reader to liven up the event. They spent $7,000 on sushi, $59,000 for audio-visual services and $75,000 for a bicycle-building exercise for attendees.
Brian Miller, the GSA's inspector general who uncovered this junket, has offered taxpayers a window into the sense of entitlement that permeates the government bureaucracy. It is not enough that federal employees enjoy nearly absolute job security while making 16 percent more than average private sector workers in pay and benefits. GSA employees went so far as to game the system to extract free food from taxpayers. Because federal rules only allowed government-funded food at "award ceremonies," employees cleverly devised "goofy awards" to get free food. These fake awards became the subject of "a running joke" among agency employees, one whistleblower reported -- one of them was actually called "The Jackass Award."
It would be a mistake to assume that these wasteful practices are isolated to the GSA. They are, in fact, typical, but only occasionally detected. In 2009, the Social Security Administration spent $770,000 on a conference for 675 of its managers at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix. In order to keep pushing benefit payments across their desks, these managers urgently needed a warm-weather getaway to meet in person, the agency insisted afterward. They also needed private dance recitals and taxpayer-funded motivational speakers. Naturally, they had to hit the casinos together after hours, too -- although at least the casino trips and their losses were not covered by taxpayers.
Obama's front men, trying to control the damage from the GSA fiasco, have attempted to blame the Bush administration, now three years out of power. Putting aside their self-serving motives, they are at least correct that wasteful spending at government conferences is a bipartisan problem.
In 2006, when George W. Bush was still president, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., conducted a review that found government-wide conference travel had jumped an incredible 70 percent since 2000. He found that the Department of Agriculture had tripled its conference spending during that period. The Department of Housing and Urban Development had quadrupled its conference budget, sending employees to 989 conferences in just one year. In 2004 alone, the Department of Health and Human Services had sent massive, 100-plus-employee delegations to 59 separate conferences.
These boondoggles continue today, even as private companies cut back on their own conference spending and lay off employees. This is why we urge the next GSA chief -- and all government executives, for that matter -- to familiarize themselves with email and Skype. These two inexpensive Internet tools don't come with sushi, and they won't put you any closer to beautiful beaches or casinos, but they're an effective way to share best practices with colleagues. They also have an important ancillary benefit: They won't turn you into a jackass.