Why Liberals Can’t Govern

by Jim Geraghty
Those who believe in the inherent goodness of government avert their eyes from its abuses.

Back in late February, a new contract document revealed that the Department of Health and Human Services would be paying $60 million for the computer cloud that supports back-end data sharing for HealthCare.gov and state Obamacare marketplaces, more than five times the amount in the original contract. This week HHS revealed that the contract has been further revised — to roughly $120 million, now more than ten times the original $11 million value of the contract when Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services first awarded it in 2011.

In most professions, when you end up spending ten times what you budgeted, the consequences are swift and severe. Heads roll. Responsibilities are reassigned. Budgetary authority gets yanked. This, of course, is not how things work in the federal government.

When George W. Bush was in the Oval Office, liberals often argued that conservative wariness and distrust of government made them poor managers of it. Because they didn’t believe in the power and benefits of an active, powerful federal bureaucracy, they tolerated and came to expect waste and mismanagement.

Alan Wolfe articulated this idea in the Washington Monthly in 2006. “Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split the difference,” he wrote, “expanding government for political gain, but always in ways that validate their disregard for the very thing they are expanding. The end result is not just bigger government, but more incompetent government. . . . As a way of governing, conservatism is another name for disaster.” His article was entitled simply “Why Conservatives Can’t Govern.”

That argument is strongly disputed, but the Obama administration has proven the flip side of the coin: Liberals’ belief in the inherent goodness of a far-reaching federal government drives them to avert their eyes from its wildest abuses, even when they are occurring right in front of them. Waste and mismanagement are ignored, dismissed, downplayed, and excused, because confronting them too directly would undermine the central tenet of their worldview: that the federal government is an irreplaceable tool for making the world a better place.

The Obamacare debacle is the most vivid example of high-profile failure and limited consequences. Kathleen Sebelius continues to run HHS, despite her admission that she didn’t tell the president about worries that the website wouldn’t be ready on time. CGI Federal no longer has the contract to build, maintain, and run HealthCare.gov; it will have to console itself with the $197 million it collected on a contract that was initially estimated to cost $94 million, and with the six additional contracts with HHS, worth $37 million, that it won between October 1, when the website launched with its myriad problems, and February. On February 21, CGI Federal signed a $4.87 million contract extension that will ensure it works on the site at least through March 31. New contractor Accenture has a one-year deal with HHS worth $91.1 million, with an additional $2 million in travel costs.

Over at The Washingtonian, Michael Gaynor offers further details on the culture of the Environmental Protection Agency, where John Beale was the highest-paid official while failing to show up for work months at a time, covering his tracks with strange and implausible tales of secret work for the Central Intelligence Agency.

The lack of accountability throughout the organization is jaw-dropping:

The EPA “research project” that took Beale to Los Angeles five times was really a smoke screen for visiting his parents in Bakersfield, two hours away. Yet his travel vouchers were barely reviewed. Officials didn’t question his expenses — they were approved laterally, by a peer instead of a manager. “Because of where he sat in the organizational structure, there were no questions,” [Office of the Inspector General special agent Mark] Kaminsky says.

Beale’s off-the-charts $206,000 salary, inflated because of the 25-percent retention bonus that never expired, was more than allowed under law. An Inspector General’s report published last year faulted a lack of internal controls at the EPA — there was no automatic stop on the bonuses after the designated allotments were distributed.

In the same report, the IG revealed that these pay issues had been brought to the attention of Beale’s office as early as July 2010. Yet managers believed that the discrepancy was a human-resources matter and tossed it back, causing it to languish for years. . . .Beale and Kaminsky counted up how often he’d used the CIA guise to skip work since 2000. The grand total: approximately 2 1/2 years.          

Investigators later put dollar amounts on his crimes: $437,901 in fraudulent retention bonuses, $58,127 for the “D.O. Oversight” absences, $8,000 for the parking spot, and so on. Altogether, he cost taxpayers $886,186.

Beale’s most recent manager at the EPA was Gina McCarthy, then the assistant administrator in the Office of Air and Radiation. She told the inspector general that she had “concerns” about Beale’s claim to be secretly working for the CIA, but there is no evidence she ever acted on those concerns, according to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

The consequence for McCarthy was a promotion; President Obama nominated her to head the EPA in March and she was confirmed in July.

The waste, mismanagement, and unaccountability is usually a bit more mundane. The inspector general of the Department of the Interior, having recently completed a review of how the Bureau of Indian Affairs leases office space, found issues with every lease it reviewed, 14 in all. The report concluded that the BIA is overspending and renting office spaces larger and more expensive than federal rules permit, costing taxpayers $32 million.

Other examples of waste, fraud, and utterly miserable performance abound:

At the U.S. Postal Service, a former facilities project manager pleads guilty to accepting bribes to steer inflated construction contracts, costing the USPS $982,064.

This week the Center for Effective Government released a report showing that in 2012 the U.S. State Department responded to only 1 percent of FOIA requests within the 20 days required by law.

The U.S. Department of Energy announces it will need two years to prepare to clean up a nuclear-waste storage tank that is leaking. The department first confirmed that the tank was leaking in October 2012.

Scrutiny of the General Services Administration’s infamous 2010 conference in Las Vegas didn’t change much. The inspector general of the Department of Commerce concluded that the National Institute of Standards and Technology conference in Orlando in 2012 incurred a number of “avoidable costs” that pushed up the $1.1 million price tag for the event.

The Department of Labor paid for the Washington Nationals’ mascot to welcome workers back after sequestration.

Defenders of the federal workforce will be quick to point out that most of these cases were uncovered, investigated, and, in most instances, punished by the offices of the inspector general at the various federal agencies. They were, but only after fortunes were spent and wasted. As Joseph E. Schmitz, former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Defense, observes, some of the watchdogs mandated by Congress simply are not in place. Since Obama took office, the Departments of Labor, Interior, Defense, and Homeland Security, and the Agency for International Development, have gone years without an inspector general nominated by the president confirmed by the Senate.

What’s more, every scandal generates a new round of guidelines and calls for better employee training, as if new federal employees needed to be instructed to follow the rules on acquisitions, not commit fraud, and not tell their bosses that they’re unavailable to come in to work because they’re secretly working for the CIA. The managers of the worst offenders rarely if ever are held accountable, and, as we’ve seen, apparently no scandal is sufficient to warrant firing a cabinet secretary. If Sebelius escaped consequence for failure, why should anyone below her worry, or anyone in any other branch of the federal bureaucracy?

Members of the Obama administration judge the federal bureaucracy the way they want the electorate to judge them: by their good intentions, not their actual results.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO. His first novel, a comic satire of the federal bureaucracy entitled The Weed Agency, will be published by Crown Forum in June.

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