It has long been good sport to make fun of the government. Ronald Reagan did it with a fine, almost deft touch. “The nine most terrifying words in the English language,” he would tell an audience, “are I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
Just about everyone, at one time or another, has used the phrase “Good enough for government work,” and we all know what it means: that something conforms to the high customer service standards one enjoys when shopping for stamps in the post office.
Government was a sort of easy punching bag and nobody much minded. It was considered harmless stuff. As long as we were compelled to have government, then we could gently mock the government we had. It was sort of an implicit deal. One of the benefits that came with being an American citizen.
But lately, government seems to have decided not to roll over and take it any more. The people in Washington who once routinely reported for work, did their jobs (more or less), and counted the days until they could retire on that splendidly guaranteed pension are now showing their teeth.
Consider three stories from the last week of September.
Start with everyone’s favorite agency, the IRS. It has been a difficult couple of years for the tax collectors. They have been shown—conclusively to all save the mainstream media—to have engaged in politically selective enforcement of the law and even in harassment of people whose agenda might be considered antigovernment. Those would be Tea Party types.
The midlevel bureaucrat who had the most to tell about this practice—one Lois Lerner—dummied up when called to answer the question of a congressional committee. The agency denied everything and claimed to have innocently destroyed evidence that might have been useful to the committee. The big chief of the IRS told Congress, essentially, to stuff its investigation and, also, that if it didn’t appropriate as much money as he said the agency needed to do its job, then the taxpayers would suffer even more than usual from slow and unprofessional service. Nobody doubted him, and he still has his job.
Well, in the waning days of September, we learned that the agency had enough money floating around to pay bonuses to more than 1,000 of its senior employees and that one of them, a lawyer, performed so ably that he got over a quarter of a million dollars. Furthermore, as reported by Paul Bedard in the Washington Examiner, ordinary IRS workers got $62.5 million in total bonuses in fiscal year 2013, which was when the targeting scandal first began to bubble. And then there was $50 million for conferences and $23.5 million for union activities. But no money to be spent for improving client services.
And aggravating as those numbers are—think about them when you are on hold, waiting to discuss a fine point of tax law on the IRS hotline—the most distressing thing is that it took a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to pry them from the agency’s claws.
Well, none of us has ever felt warmly about the IRS. But the Department of Veterans Affairs is a different story. It was not so long ago that pundits like Paul Krugman were writing that the proof government could deliver health care was right there in front of us in the form of Veterans Affairs. One merely needed eyes unblinded by right-wing ideology to see that the VA had a record of success that proved “a government agency can deliver better care at lower cost than the private sector.” Ezra Klein, the left’s tireless explainer of everything, went so far as to write, “The unquestioned leader in American health care is a government agency that employs 198,000 federal workers from five different unions, and nonetheless maintains short wait times and high consumer satisfaction.”
Well, we all subsequently learned, the VA routinely denied health care to eligible veterans and covered it up through the usual bureaucratic legerdemain. And, in a nearly sublime exercise of arrogance, some of the responsible bureaucrats rewarded themselves with performance bonuses.