Bob Franken

King Features Column

(The usual note: The agreement with the syndicator means this column appears here a week after its newspaper release)

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       No argument here about the outrage over the outlandish General Services Administration bacchanal in Las Vegas. The organizer, Jeff Neely, said he wanted this $800,000-plus “team building” conference with its mind reader, exorbitant food and other costly merrymaking to be “over the top.” He sure succeeded.
       But now he’s squirming under the Capitol big top, refusing to testify before a congressional committee. He has decided to take the 5th, which probably makes sense since there’s a possibility of criminal charges.
       He and his fellow party animals have managed to spawn a Washington rarity: bipartisanship. The twaddle from members of both parties was flapping in outrage as Republicans and Democrats alike were filling the air and TV news channels with their righteous sound bites over such a cavalier waste of government money.
       And they are absolutely correct; we should stop all those in power who act like the federal Treasury is their personal slush fund and that they are entitled to waste the people’s money to satisfy their lavish tastes.
       Imagine how much money we’d save, for instance, if we not only scaled back the unnecessary retreats that have so long been a part of the management culture, but also the superfluous travel abroad by members of Congress on the public dime.
       Yes, maybe this time we finally can do something about those notorious “Codels,” the bureaucratic shorthand for congressional delegations, meaning all those international trips for senators and representatives. The planet becomes their playground during recess.
       Their longstanding argument has been that the trips are necessary to expose them to firsthand knowledge of the world’s problems and acquaint them with foreign leaders.
       To be fair, this is not about the excursions by the likes of Sens. John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, who so often pop up in garden spots like Afghanistan and other hellholes.
       But will someone please explain why so many of the others repeatedly traipse around exotic resorts or in glitzy cities, along with family members and staff entourages.

       According to a tally of these junkets between 2001 and 2010, they cost taxpayers more than $110 million for luxury hotels and the services of poor embassy people who must ensure the red carpet is spotless and secure. It does not include the millions upon millions of dollars for military planes that ferry around those junketeers; that is unreported by the Pentagon.
       If members want to enjoy the lifestyle of the rich and famous, let them pay for it themselves. Or they can let the lobbyists add the tab to the price of doing their business. They already sponsor contrived “conferences” in the U.S., with their rounds of golf or choice spots in some loge seated next to a favored influence peddler.
       It brings to mind the old Mark Twain quote about “the best Congress money can buy.” But accepting special-interest goodies, while sleazy, is preferable to skimming money from the public trough.
       We’re in such a financial hole that we can’t afford a privileged government class. These days, even the widely respected Defense Secretary Leon Panetta cannot be allowed to spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars it has cost for his regular family visits to California in secure aircraft. As much as we might sympathize, we don’t have the resources.
       Maybe, at some point, someone actually will institute effective laws that make it much more difficult for public service to become private enrichment. The effort is usually dismissed as sadly naive, just like so many pledges to change the culture of Washington.
       When the conservatives rail about wastefulness and corruption, they’re right. It’s pathetic that the promise to eliminate “waste, fraud and abuse” is an easily dismissed cliche.
       But let’s fantasize for a moment about how the GSA Las Vegas fun frolic actually might result in members of Congress passing some tight restrictions. And while we’re dreaming, dare we hope that they include themselves.
       © 2012 Bob Franken
       Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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