Federal Follies

Sometimes, in order to correct an undesirable character trait or a bad habit, it becomes necessary to take extreme measures. Addicts go cold turkey; alcoholics stop drinking altogether.

It is true in solving an individual’s problems, and it also applies to groups and whole societies. When thalidomide was found to be causing birth defects, it was taken off the market; when the health hazards of smoking became known, certain large advertising venues were banned from carrying cigarette advertising; when carcinogens were discovered in asbestos, the material was banned.

Of course, it’s hard to know just how far to go. Public policy-makers have to weigh the risks versus the financial losses, and politicians have to weigh the electoral losses of outlawing popular but unhealthy products. Sometimes they don’t go far enough; sometimes they go too far.

Prohibition is the classic example. By making alcoholic beverages illegal, the federal government succeeded not in purging the populace of a destructive desire, but of forcing that desire and the market for it to go outside the law. In effect, it turned millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens into scofflaws and gave organized crime a huge opportunity to expand, which it did.

The federal government has done it again, albeit not on so large or destructive a scale. This week, it came to light how, in order to prevent profligate expenditures by government employees on trips and conferences, a clampdown was put into effect so severe as to cripple government operations nationwide.

It began three years ago with a scandal: a Las Vegas conference where hundreds of federal workers gathered for four days on a taxpayer budget of $800,000. The official confab offered luxury accommodations and lavishly catered  parties, spent thousands of dollars on a souvenir album and commemorative conference coins, and had such diversions as a mind-reader and special entertainment.

It is to the government’s credit that once exposed, it conducted a thorough investigation and those in charge of the regrettable retreat were disciplined. Jeffrey E. Neely, the former General Services Administration senior executive chiefly to blame for the scandal, was indicted on five counts of fraud in September. GSA chief Martha Johnson, two of her deputies and several other senior officials were forced to resign. In addition, it brought to light hundreds of millions of dollars being spent around the bureaucracy on what Abraham Lincoln in a simpler age referred to scornfully as “flub-dubs.”

Such corrective action was laudable. Restrictions imposed on federal agencies by the Obama administration following the scandal are said to have saved nearly $3 billion in taxpayer money on unjustifiable spending.

But the government went further than removing the guilty ones and tightening budgetary reins. In the zeal to eliminate the abuses of conferencing, it has eliminated the uses as well.

As The Washington Post revealed on Monday, the government has arrived at the other extreme — from outrageous excess to a kind of non-functional austeritay.

“When federal employees get together for training and meetings, fancy lunches aren’t on the menu anymore. In fact, food of any kind — tuna fish sandwiches, green salad, oatmeal cookies — can no longer be served by the government. Even coffee is off-limits.”

Spending restrictions are preventing scientists in the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies from traveling to legitimate academic conferences necessary for their work. Various officials have been hampered in obtaining the recertification needed to continue their work because of the budgetary strictures. Across-the-board spending caps have meant a rigidity that does not allow for many legitimate and vital activities.

In other words, the clampdown has taken on a mindlessness almost as bad as the irresponsibility that led to it.

To be fair, the Office of Management and Budget has begun to come to its senses. Last month, new instructions were issued, giving agencies more flexibility in spending for travel and conferences deemed “mission critical.” Common sense creeps back in.

The inspector general at the General Services Administration, Brian D. Miller, who blew the whistle on the Las Vegas fling, summed it up succinctly: “You have an outrageous case and all of a sudden you have a blanket law. It’s kind of a bureaucratic problem.”

Or, in other words, the government should not make laws and regulations under which the people cannot live and work. That wisdom is not so hard to understand; it’s the application of it that requires wisdom.