By Joe Conason
Colombian prostitutes and lavish partying in Vegas inspire hot headlines—and understandably infuriate the public. But concerned as President Obama must be over the unfolding embarrassments in the Secret Service and the General Services Administration, he may actually be comforted by the feeble attempts of a few politicians to wring political profit from those scandals. The likelihood that the White House is implicated can be measured by their stature.
When senators like Joe Lieberman, Chuck Grassley and Susan Collins demand that the president or his administration must be “held accountable,” it is safe to assume further investigation will discover nothing damning. Even Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., the highly excitable chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has been able to restrain himself so far.
Yet Republicans who won’t pretend that Barack Obama is responsible for a handful of bad security agents or GSA officials will still scream that these misadventures prove “Democratic big government” is America’s biggest problem.
Initial efforts to lay blame upon the president—who was betrayed by both the GSA director he had appointed and by the Secret Service and military personnel tasked to protect him in Cartagena—were predictable enough. Collins, R-Maine, suggested that Obama is somehow “responsible” for overspending on a GSA conference in Las Vegas simply because he appointed the agency’s head (whom he promptly fired when the abuses came to his attention). She has been in government long enough to know that the president can scarcely oversee every dollar—and while $860,000 sounds like a lot of money, it is a vanishingly small sum in a nearly $4 trillion federal budget. Grandstanding politicians like her often compare the nation’s expenditures, with false naivete, to a household budget. For a family earning $40,000 a year, this would represent a misallocation of far less than 4 cents.
As for the prostitution scandal, Grassley, R-Iowa, seized upon the inevitable publicity to get a little for himself, by asking the Secret Service whether it is adequately investigating the possible involvement of White House staff members. He specifically pointed to the White House Communications Agency—which used to be called the Signal Office and is in fact part of the White House Military Office, not under direct control of the president or his civilian staff, as the Iowa senator ought to know by now. Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who nominally caucuses with the Senate Democrats, chimed in on Fox News with his usual sanctimony to urge that the president be “held accountable” for the Secret Service fiasco, although he couldn’t quite explain what that would mean, instead reciting the usual “buck stops at the president’s desk” pap.
Other figures in the ranks of the president’s adversaries, such as super PAC boss Karl Rove, have wisely urged the Republicans to refrain from politicizing either of these mini-scandals for the moment. Having worked in the White House, Rove probably knows that the president has done what he can to address them. The White House counsel’s office has already reported that none of the presidential staff was involved in the Cartagena misconduct.
But certainly some Republicans will seek to conflate the GSA matter (and perhaps even the Secret Service scandal) with all government spending, since the tea party ideology that now dominates their party deems almost all government to be synonymous with “waste, fraud and abuse.”
Would they abolish the Secret Service? Probably not, since that great scourge of waste, Newt Gingrich, insists he will continue using their protection—at a cost of millions in taxpayer dollars—from now until the GOP convention in August. As for the GSA, the problem there appears to have arisen from a favorite Republican panacea that is always supposed to eliminate inefficiency: the hiring of a private contractor.
Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com.
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