News & Politics

Commentary: Outrage Is Making a Welcome Return to Washington

The harsh reaction to the GSA and Secret Service scandals are much needed—but it’s not enough to undo decades of laxity.

Count me among anyone who is glad to see the return of outrage to Washington. The public rebuke of brazen bureaucrats from the General Services Administration and the firing-cum-forced-retirement of moronic Secret Service agents remind us that sometimes, foul deeds don’t go unpunished. It’s gratifying to hear the chorus of indignation emanating from Capitol Hill. One member of Congress actually accused the GSA of administering a “slush fund” to pay for its lavish Las Vegas conference. Those are fighting words. People go to jail for this kind of thing. Representative John Mica, whose committee is investigating the agency, called the Vegas junket “just the tip of the iceberg.” There are more outrages to come.

And over at the Secret Service, investigators are asking more questions: about the agent working on security for a presidential visit who refused to pay a prostitute, and about his colleagues’ apparent attempts to silence her when she went to the local police for help. At least three employees are being fired or pushed out, and the Pentagon is separately looking into military personnel who were in Colombia for President Obama’s trip.

Given Washington’s track record for public responsibility, you’d have been smart to bet that no one would get fired, shamed, blamed, or harshly scolded for these latest violations of the public trust. Let’s recall: No senior government official got the axe after the 9/11 attacks. No one paid with his job for the flawed intelligence assessment on Iraq. Prosecutions for the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib were almost entirely focused on low-level military personnel. Back at home, the fall of FEMA chief Michael Brown in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was a token stab at righting a security bureaucracy that was rife with incompetence, including at levels higher than Brown’s. In later years, Wall Street whistleblowers went ignored. Government financial regulators were asleep at the switch. The economy nearly froze in 2008, and yet no heads rolled. It took an oil rig blowing up in the Gulf of Mexico to bring to light years of endemic corruption in the agency that oversees oil drilling. So yes, good on ya, Government, for finally taking the sharp scalpel of accountability to the malignant tumor of malfeasance. I was beginning to think you didn’t have it in you.

Given the swiftness and severity of the response to both these scandals, one is tempted to believe Washington is reversing its long trend of leaving the guilty unpunished, and that the lashings of GSA and the Secret Service herald a more conscientious era.

Sadly, that’s not the case. Rather, it seems the big lesson here is that it takes utterly base and brazen behavior to summon the ire of lawmakers and the administration. It takes sex. Money. Parties. Booze. Which is not to say that what happened in Las Vegas and Colombia wasn’t outrageous. It was. But it was so obviously outrageous. When the scandal turns on more complex or opaque facts–secretive intelligence, financial regulations, administrative minutiae–the eyes of the overseers glaze over, or look away.

We’ve lost our will for public reckoning. We don’t want to punish anyone at the FBI or the CIA for failing to cooperate on terrorism investigations because, well, it was the “system’s” fault, not one person’s. We’ll pillory low-level employees, but we don’t blame their bosses, because we think they can’t possibly know everything that happens beneath them. We’ve created a distance between people and their jobs, and when something goes wrong, they wiggle right through the cracks.

People don’t have to go to jail for the public to believe the government is actually responsive. It’s enough to hear someone like Martha Johnson, the disgraced ex-head of the GSA, say, “I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment.” She even used the right word: appointment. She was given this trust. She didn’t earn it. And she doesn’t get to keep it.

But we shouldn’t feel too satisfied watching Johnson squirm, or knowing Secret Service agents who clearly failed in their duties will be relieved of them. These were easy calls for the government to make. When the misdeeds are murkier, and more extensive, don’t expect such certain justice.