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Eli Lehrer

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New Ethics Rules: Bah, Humbug!

Posted: 04/30/2012 4:15 pm

In a country struggling with record budget deficits, feeling outraged about a federal agency that spent almost $900,000 on a lavish booze-soaked conference and Secret Service agents who visited prostitutes while on a taxpayer-funded trip seems natural. And the reactions will be just as natural: Congress will hold hearings, the Obama administration will swear "never again," conservative advocacy groups will send out pitches painting the administration as irredeemably corrupt, liberal ones will try to blame the Bush administration, people will lose their jobs, and, if crimes were committed, some will go to jail.

The Secret Service has already announced it will have "chaperones" on all trips and the General Services Administration, which held the conference, has canceled almost all future conferences. Heads have rolled at both agencies. But, it's all for naught. The Secret Service doesn't need new rules. Neither does GSA. Ending all scandals is impossible and even trying to do so may make an already top-heavy government even less efficient.

It isn't as if this hasn't happened before. Barely two years ago, another federal agency -- what was then called the Minerals Management Service -- ended up under media, congressional, and public spotlights for a hard-partying culture that involved employees taking bribes, doing drugs, and exchanging sexual favors with employees of the companies it was supposed to regulate. (That scandal, which came to encompass some of MMS' actual duties, was actually worse than what seems to have gone on at GSA and Secret Service.) And before that came the millions of dollars that disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramhoff, who lavished thousands on golf junkets for select federal employees in return for official acts. And so forth.

Regrettable as these scandals are, they were all newsworthy precisely because they're not all that common. While it's possible and desirable to stop government officials from committing crimes on the public's time, simply spending money, even tax money, in a foolish fashion isn't a crime. In Colombia, where the Secret Service scandal took place, buying sex isn't necessarily illegal either. And trying to prevent every potentially foolish decision just isn't worth it for any enterprise inside or outside the government. Every purchase, personnel, and monitoring decision involves dozens of explicit and implicit tradeoffs involving employee morale, spending, convenience, and quality. Government procurement, despite some improvements in recent years, is still terribly burdensome and, in many cases, may spend thousands of dollars worth of employee time on "bargain shopping" that saves much less.

All sizable government agencies already have inspectors general that try to police their activities and a roster of ethics rules far more complex than those found in the overwhelming bulk of private enterprises. For good reason, almost all government agencies already operate far more openly than the typical private enterprise. In this context, extreme measures like banning all professional development events are likely to destroy agency morale and sap productivity for no good reason. Likewise, sequestering Secret Service agents in hotels during all off-duty time during travel could well damage morale in the agency that, after all, trains them to sacrifice their lives for top officials. In any case, both the Secret Service and GSA seem to have violated dozens of existing policies and simply enforcing those policies could have prevented the problems.

In the end, some degree of corruption is inevitable given the government's size. No enterprise that employs 2 million people and spends nearly $2.5 trillion could ever do everything well or honestly. Making government run more efficiently, something everyone wishes for, simply isn't possible if every move any federal worker makes has to be double checked in a way that a private business never would.

The bottom line, then, seems pretty simple: the size and scope of government means scandals like those at GSA and The Secret Service are inevitable. Simply making more rules won't end scandals -- that's impossible -- but may make government even less efficient.

 

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