For the past week or so, the news media have hyped two government scandals with very different implications. The first is the revelation that some workers at the General Services Administration (GSA) have found a way to turn their incredibly boring-seeming jobs into a taxpayer-funded good life. The second is the sordid tale of sex and debauchery among Secret Service agents assigned to protect the President in Colombia. Right now the Secret Service scandal — with its combination of a XXX rating and the intrigue of presidential security — is drowning out the GSA scandal, leading TV news reports while the story of the business-class bureaucrats fades.
And that’s good news for the White House. The Secret Service scandal may be a moral outrage, and perhaps suggests that presidential security needs a review. But, really, there’s not much else to say about it. The GSA scandal, on the other hand, strikes right at the heart of a real debate: Is the federal government bloated and filled with waste? Would the spending cuts Republicans demand really be as painful as Democrats say, or do we have a lot of room to tighten the belt just by trimming the old troika of waste, fraud and abuse? For a lot of Americans, no doubt, the GSA story suggests we do.
The truth is obviously more complicated. The vast majority of federal spending goes to defense, Social Security and health care. The cost of running federal departments and agencies like the GSA is relatively minor. And while we can and should root out as much abuse like this as possible, not least to guarantee the public’s faith in government, it’s almost certainly a drop in the bucket relative to the national debt.
Still, most Americans don’t spend a lot of time looking at pie charts. And they understandably fume when, just as they’ve mailed off their taxes, they see some bozo soaking in a Vegas tub at public expense. They might even blame the President personally — as Republicans are encouraging them to — for not showing more “managerial leadership.” That too seems unfair. (Among other things, Obama instituted a two-year pay freeze for federal workers in 2010.) But politics isn’t fair. Which is why, all things considered, Obama might prefer that we talk about secret agents procuring hookers than worker drones building bicycles.