Margeret Carlson: Feds shop 'til they drop

October 1, 2013 

The government shutdown is a bridge way too far, but I hate to admit that the right-wing Republican caucus sometimes has a point. Just take a look at what bureaucrats get up to on their equivalent of New Year's Eve. It's as wild and crazy a moment for them as it is for revelers in Times Square. The difference is that the functionaries get to blow taxpayer money.

The fun begins about a week before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. The idea is to spend every dollar in that year's budget by midnight, or the unspent funds will be lost.

The government worker who spends every last dime will get an equal or greater appropriation the next year, perhaps even a bonus for a job well done. The one who saves for a rainy day or returns money to the Treasury won't be so lucky. That should teach the frugal guy in the green eyeshade who reuses paper clips how to conduct himself in the future.

It's not as easy as you'd think to throw away billions of dollars, and much is spent stupidly. Public Notice, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog agency, documented the spike in spending over the last three years. The graph looks like the end of a blood drive when the red fills up to the top.

Public Notice cites the example of the Department of Veterans Affairs. There's not an agency with a more sacred trust: caring for the soldiers who've fought, returned alive and need help getting back on their feet, sometimes literally. But over the past week, the VA has blown more than $500,000 on art, according to the Washington Post. While a veteran isn't being seen, he can look at soothing photos of sunsets, mountains and winding roads.

Why couldn't the VA have spent that money on making a dent in its notorious backlog of claims? Some are so old they are filled out in triplicate on carbon paper, accumulating in piles so heavy that they threaten to crash through the floor.

Jon Stewart calls it "Operation Enduring Wait." Barbara Mikulski, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, calls it untenable. The Maryland lawmaker rolled up VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's sleeves for him last spring, demanding that he make claims — about 500,000 of which have been waiting for more than 125 days — his highest priority. According to the VA, the backlog is now below 422,000. At that rate, veterans will grow old looking at pastoral scenes on the wall. Why didn't someone at the VA think of allocating that money to the digitized system that's been promised but hasn't been completed?

That's a boring thing to do on New Year's Eve. The VA has a lot of practice spending on nonessentials. The agency has admitted to Congress that it spends so much (anywhere between $20 million and $100 million) on alcohol, gift baskets, concerts, limos, helicopter rides and spa treatments that it can't provide a specific number.

The VA isn't the only spendthrift. In 2010, the Internal Revenue Service decided its employees needed to go listen to motivational speakers flown in first class to a conference in Anaheim where the agency also put on a show featuring an elaborate "Star Trek" set on which the taxmen acted out skits involving distress calls to Planet No-Tax while enjoying open bars and free meals.

Whatever happened to meeting in an agency's cafeteria with an urn of coffee? We all remember the General Services Administration bacchanal in Las Vegas in 2010 that cost $823,000. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said conference overload was the result of an end-of-year shopping-spree mentality.

Big beneficiaries of these fire sales are defense contractors who up the pizza orders and settle in for all-nighters to accommodate the last-minute flurry of Pentagon buying. The government spent 8.5%of its annual budget for contracts during the last week of the last three fiscal years, according to Public Notice.

Republicans and Democrats alike complain about end-of-year binges (Time magazine had a story on the practice in 1952), but nothing changes. It's "the very debate we aren't having in Washington but should," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Heedless spending doesn't make government as bad as Republicans say, but it doesn't increase people's trust that government can run things such as a health care system. It leads to suspicion that everyone's on the take and government has its wallet open for them.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to see if I can get a small grant to study government waste. I hear there's a sale on.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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