WASHINGTON -- This city loves a scandal -- as long as it's just the right size. Not too small. But also not too big.
While official Washington remains in a tizzy over profligate spending on a General Services Administration junket in Vegas and alleged dalliances between Secret Service agents and Colombian prostitutes, Congress continues to pay little to no attention to the ongoing war in Afghanistan -- a war in which the cost of waste, fraud and abuse is in the billions of dollars, not the hundreds of thousands.
"I understand why the Congress is having a heyday with the GSA conference," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight. "Everyone gets that it's outrageous for taxpayers to pay for commemorative coins and magicians.
"But we're talking about relatively little amounts of money compared to the massive amounts of money that are getting almost no attention from the Congress," she said.
"It's a little shocking to see the outrage and the hysteria that goes on and on about [the GSA and Secret Service]," said Stephen Miles, a coordinator with antiwar group Win Without War.
"It would be nice if there were some concern for when the money is wasted in the war zone or inside the Pentagon that has any relation to the level of outrage that we've seen in the last few days."
The GSA conference, which took place in 2010, cost somewhere over $800,000.
By contrast, when the congressionally chartered Commission on Wartime Contracting wrapped up its three-year investigation last August, it concluded that about $30 billion to $60 billion had been lost to waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan, just out of the $206 billion paid to contractors.
Seven months later, Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Jim Webb (Va.) proposed legislation based on some of the commission's recommendations to increase accountability in wartime contracting. But Hill-watchers don't expect it to go anywhere. And the hearing McCaskill held on the bill last week didn't get nearly as much attention as the one House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) held two days earlier on the GSA scandal.
Meanwhile, Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.) has announced plans to hold a hearing on the Secret Service sex scandal.
"It's perfectly reasonable for the committees of jurisdiction to be on top of this and the like," said Thomas E. Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "But it's down there at a relatively low level of priority for the country."
Mann decried the congressional habit of paying "too little attention to matters that really involve huge amounts of money and genuine harm to the country, and loads of attention to those matters that seem titillating."
Brian said Congress seems to have a particular blind spot when it comes to Afghanistan and spending there. "I am astounded at how little thought has been put into the conduct and progress of the Afghanistan war by this Congress," she said.
"They have poked their own eyes out," she said. "It's totally self-inflicted."
Part of the problem is a lack of effort on lawmakers' part, Brian argued. "They're not taking the time to do the hard work to understand it," she said.
After all, the question of how much is too much to pay for logistical support in a war zone is much more complicated to explain and understand than hookers and YouTube videos.
But there's also, perhaps, a lack of will. "The times when it has been clearly pointed out that there's been wasted money, [lawmakers] still haven't dealt with that," Brian said.
The U.S. mission in Afghanistan has been particularly inefficient in part due to poor planning and execution, but also because of the country's extreme and endemic corruption. Transparency International recently ranked it the third most corrupt country in the world, behind only Somalia and Myanmar.
Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to spend about $2 billion a week on Afghanistan, a country where the gross domestic product is about $14 billion a year.
The revelation by Wikileaks in late 2010 that Afghanistan's vice president had been caught carrying $52 million in cash in a Persian Gulf tax haven raised a few eyebrows, but the story quickly faded. And it was hardly an isolated incident. Just this month, a senior Afghan government official told Reuters that wealthy Afghans are carrying about $8 billion out of the country each year.
Some news organizations have done what they could to focus national and congressional attention on the issue. McClatchy Newspapers exhaustively documented the overspending and corruption afflicting U.S. sponsored project in Afghanistan.
Back in December, Bloomberg reported that the Pentagon was demanding that one of its food contractors in Afghanistan return $756.9 million in overpayments. That alone is about a thousand times more money than the GSA junket cost.
The new strategic partnership agreement that the U.S. reached with Afghanistan on Sunday -- with little to no congressional input -- pledges American support for Afghanistan for 10 years after the withdrawal of combat troops at the end of 2014. It will cost at least $2.7 billion to over $4 billion a year, just for training and funding the Afghan security forces.
Matt Southworth, a lobbyist for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, said congressional oversight of the war has amounted to little more than having "high ranking officials tell members of Congress that everything is going well … when the reality is quite to the contrary."
Despite the lack of debate, the House last year nearly passed a measure that, while far short of demanding an end to the war, nevertheless would have required the president to present Congress with a timeline for withdrawal. "They're catching up with America," Southworth said.
See our November 2010 slideshow on billions down the drain:
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