As Americans struggle to get by in a lackluster economy, news of government employees living large at their expense is particularly appalling.
So it's no surprise that reports of lavish conferences for employees of the General Services Administration and Secret Service agents dismissed for hiring prostitutes while in Colombia for the Summit of the Americas have provoked considerable chagrin.
The twin scandals bring to mind the decadence and debauchery of the declining Roman Empire, when emperors and senators organized spectacles and lavish parties even as Rome spiraled toward its end. Now our own country seems to be rushing headlong into bankruptcy as those we elect as leaders show no more spending restraint than did Nero. Perhaps those working for the government want to be certain to get their share of the taxpayers' largess before economic reality finally turns off the taps and shuts down the party.
An administrator for the GSA, which oversees government properties and leases, spent $823,000 on a 2010 training conference in Las Vegas for 300 employees. The tab included a $100,000 scouting trip for venues a year earlier, plus nearly $150,000 for food at the conference itself, $75,000 for a "team-building exercise," and more than $12,000 for trinkets and T-shirts. Entertainment included a clown and a mind reader, as well as a rap video produced by a conference participant bragging about "rolling ... in my GOV (government-owned vehicle)" and how he'll never be under investigation by the OIG (Office of the Inspector General).
All that was missing from this latter-day Roman bacchanalia were the slaves lowering bunches of grapes into conference participants' mouths.
Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan notes that government waste is nothing new. But it once was hidden and considered an embarrassment. Here, the GSA conference participants celebrated their wastefulness.
GSA Administrator Martha Johnson, having come into office promising to end agency abuses under the Bush administration, resigned in the wake of the scandal.
Meanwhile, in Cartagena, Colombia, Secret Service agents sent to prepare for President Barack Obama's visit to the Summit of the Americas spent their evenings hiring prostitutes and bringing them up to their hotel rooms. The agents likely would have gotten away with their misdeeds had not one of them declined to pay the requested fee. She called police — prostitution is legal in parts of Colombia — and the story swiftly went public.
A total of 12 agents and 11 members of the military have been implicated in the scandal, which involved more than 20 Colombian prostitutes. Six Secret Service agents have resigned or been fired so far.
The scandal is deeply disturbing because it undermines the Secret Service's reputation for quiet, competent professionalism. That professionalism was conspicuously absent in Colombia.
The twin scandals reveal a bureaucratic class that no longer cares about the opinions of the taxpaying public that supports it. As America marches toward insolvency, some officials are determined to grab what they can for themselves, public opinion be damned.