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We're From the Government and We're Here to … Boogie

11:33 AM, Apr 17, 2012 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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In times past, government "service" was the career choice for people who didn't really believe in fun. Or had never had much practice at it, anyway. The federal bureaucrat, back then, dressed gray and thought in columns of figures. The kind with many, many zeroes. Washington, D.C., in those days, was a dreary town famously described by John F. Kennedy as a place of "Northern charm and Southern efficiency."

This, manifestly, is no longer true. Not when the General Services Administration is exposed for hard partying and big spending in Las Vegas where, whatever goes on there is supposed to stay there. One thing, obviously, has not changed: People who work in Washington can't keep a secret.

They can, however, clam up and stonewall once they have been undressed and exposed. Yesterday, Jeff Neely, who was the official in charge of the Las Vegas event, answered questions of a congressional committee investigating his agency's excesses by citing his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. In this case, by admitting that he may now be, or once have been, employed by the federal government.  

Neely's former boss, Martha Johnson, has resigned from her job as head of the GSA. She was mortified, she says, to discover that her subordinates had been less than frugal in spending public funds:

"I deeply regret that the exceedingly good work of GSA has been besmirched,"  Ms. Johnson said.   "I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment and its role in leading a vital and important part of the government of the United States of America."

To which once says, "Oh, come on." The role of the GSA, like thousands (okay, maybe hundreds) of obscure little Washington fiefdoms, is to spend the people's money and look, ceaselessly, for ways to increase congressional appropriations for the next fiscal year.

One can almost sympathize with the GSA bureaucrats who now find themselves obliged to take the Fifth. Almost. After all, they work in a recession-proof industry and live in a recession-proof town. When Kennedy made his crack about the culture of Washington, it was an urban dump compared to, say, Detroit. Since then, Washington has prospered and Detroit has declined to the point of utter collapse. Which leads one to wonder if there is not a causal relationship between those transitions.  

Also, to wonder if perhaps people in Washington and the government might not believe that, because they and their city have done so well, they are not, in some sense, entitled to their prosperity and power. Ms. Johnson used that word, yesterday, in her testimony when asked why, when the president had supposedly frozen federal salaries, people in her agency were paid bonuses.

"The senior executives were entitled to bonuses under our -- we're entitled to bonuses. I don't believe the pay freeze affected those bonuses," Johnson responded.

That word. When the republic is dead and buried, its epitaph might read, "They believed they were entitled."

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