Secret Service Scandal: When Bureaucrats Behave Badly, Politicians Sense an Opportunity

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House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa of California and ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland begin a hearing about abuse of funds at the Government Services Administration April 16, 2012 in Washington.

For President Obama, the allegations that Secret Service agents cavorted with Colombian prostitutes is a nuisance. For assignment editors, it is a golden goose: a salacious scandal involving an elite, clandestine organization, with tinges of international intrigue. And for Congressional Republicans, it is the perfect political cudgel. 

The incident is not simply a matter of a small cadre of bureaucrats behaving badly, Darrell Issa said Monday. “What we see is that this story is larger than 11 individuals,” the Republican Congressman told CBS. Instead, it’s part of a “pattern of behavior,” Issa said, of “activities that clearly compromised” national security. “We clearly have lost confidence and we need to get that confidence back by knowing that the system will be changed,” he declared.

One possible way to restore that confidence and to initiate the process of catharsis might be to haul agency bigwigs before Congress for a ritualistic shaming. Taking people to the woodshed for purposes of political theater is a time-honored bipartisan tradition. In recent years, Democrats went through the process with BP and Goldman Sachs, both of which took their lumps with a mixture of defiance and choreographed remorse and quickly returned to their business of notching record profits. Issa, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, stands out primarily because he has a knack for harnessing his outrage at the malfeasance of the moment as a self-promotional tool.

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Given the gavel when Republicans won the house in 2010, Issa quickly declared his intention to hold hundreds of hearings to ferret out government waste. Shortly thereafter, he sparked a firestorm by proclaiming the Obama Administration “one of the most corrupt” in history; he later apologized, but not before he became a hero of the Obama-loathing right. Ryan Lizza’s buzzy New Yorker profile of Issa, an investigation into the Californian’s own past, drew notice in D.C. partly for his spokesman’s Kinsleyan gaffe, which was the admission that his goal was “to make Darrell Issa an actual political figure. I’m going to focus like a laser beam on the five hundred people here who care about this crap…so Darrell can expand his sphere of influence.” A few weeks ago, when the GOP made opposition to the White House contraception mandate a central part of its message, Issa raised the bar on political point-scoring by holding a hearing that conveyed the party line in its title: “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?” (If you buy the sincerity of the question, consider that Issa only called witnesses whose answer was yes.”)

So Issa’s concern may not entirely be that a failure to investigate the Secret Service’s culture now “can lead to blackmail, 10, 20 years from now.” The allegations against the agency are a chance to remind voters of the Republican stance that the natural progression of government bureaucracies is to sprawl and curdle unless rectitudinous Congressman prevent it. It distills the GOP’s small-government agenda to its essence. If the story impinges on Obama’s message, so much the better.

Which isn’t to say the Secret Service has a spotless record. Over the years, the strains of the gig have manifested themselves in bursts of bad behavior. The Wall Street Journal cited “current and former officials” suggesting that on travel assignments, agents practiced a “wheels up, rings off” philosophy–a phrase that suggests a pattern of licentiousness in the agency’s ranks. On Monday, the agency said it had revoked the security clearance of the 11 agents involved in the Cartagena incident, which took place ahead of Obama’s visit. Clearly the Secret Service is in a defensive crouch, bracing for backlash. Obama himself called for a “thorough” and “rigorous” investigation.

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Perhaps the incident will be an inflection point for the agency, which was green-lighted by Abraham Lincoln on the day of his assassination. Originally, the Secret Service was tasked to combat rampant counterfeiting; it wasn’t until President McKinley’s assassination in 1901 that it became the primary vehicle for presidential protection. Since then, its brief has expanded to cyber-crime and protection of dignitaries both domestic and foreign. (For an inside look at the agency’s inner workings, read Marc Ambinder’s excellent reporting here.)

More likely, however, is that the brouhaha will fade with the next news cycle. Every organization, from the media to the military to Congress, has its bad apples: 11 rogues out of some 4,500 agents and uniformed police does not seem enough to establish a pattern of bad faith. Meanwhile, Issa is also zeroing in on another, less sympathetic target for public outrage: the fat-cat bureaucrats at the General Services Administration, who forked over $822,000 to ferry executives to a lavish Las Vegas conference it could have held in its own facilities, after a series of pricey location-scouting trips. Jeff Neely, the GSA executive who organized the outing, was battered in a hearing before Issa’s committee on Monday, as lawmakers fulminated over the fact that Neely had squandered taxpayer dollars to bankroll the swank trips — and received a $9,000 bonus for his performance. As scandals go, this one seems a far better indictment of fetid bureaucracy than an alleged Secret Service agents’ dalliance. Plus, it has pictures.

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