Are we still fit to govern ourselves? – waste in government – The Last Word – Column

Are we still fit to govern ourselves? – waste in government – The Last Word – Column – Brief Article

Woody West

The buzz among political consultants and pollsters is that a vast number of Americans will not bother to vote in November. For that matter, fewer and fewer in recent years have thought it worth the small effort to cast ballots in local and state elections, while at the same time complaints about boneheaded governance are nearing crescendo.

One reason for this dangerous disenchantment is the casualness with which those in power find infuriating ways to spend. For hideous example, there is the gala that the gang at the U.S. Postal Service threw for Marvin T. Runyon earlier this year.

In most shops and offices, when a colleague retires or goes down the street, a collection is taken. Coworkers will kick in a few bucks each. A slice of cake and a glass of punch, and perhaps a gift, will convey the sentiments of the occasion.

When Mr. Runyon packed it in this spring after six years as postmaster general, the board of governors ordered up the cake and punch–to a final tab, we now learn, of $124,396.73. This was not a collection from the mail carriers and clerks. The postal pooh-bahs took it out of the till (you’ve noticed the price of a stamp is going up shortly).

Though the Postal Service is a semiautonomous corporation, Congress does keep a weather eye on the operations, and we know of the lavish going-away party through Rep. John M. McHugh’s Postal Service subcommittee. The New York Republican was disconcerted to learn that the centerpiece of the Runyon farewell an elaborate dinner at Washington’s grand Union Station –alone cost $120,300, or nearly three times the initial estimate by the postal governors when they approved the affair.

On what planet have these people been living?

The costs for the festivities are marvelous. The site, grub and amenities cost $75,384.75. Another $21,113 went for invitations and embossed programs illustrated with a stamp from Mr. Runyon’s tenure. You can’t have a a classy bash without a celebrity, of course. Actor Karl Malden was paid $3,029.28 to be the master of ceremonies (28 cents?) and another $1,850 was spent for engraved envelopes with Mr. Runyon’s image thereon. Oh, yes, $5,000 went for a video of the honoree’s career to delight the diners.

Included also in the final cost, as reported by the Washington Post, was travel to Washington for the spouses of the postal board of governors and for regional vice presidents and their spouses. To top off the fond farewell, an additional $4,096.73 was laid out for a Capitol Hill reception for Mr. Runyon.

Well, Congress spills more than that every day. But this kind of privileged play by those in power demeans the dignity of any ideal of public service. Pride still is taken in many corners of the republic that you use it up, wear it out, make it do. Pomp like that for the postal dinner conveys contempt for those who consider prudence, public and domestic, a badge of good citizenship.

Such excess, unhappily, is not rare. Here are a couple of cameos to illustrate that heedless spending is a norm now throughout government –to which any reader probably can add.

In a middling-sized town in Western Maryland the other day, the city council was deciding on how to furnish a new bureaucratic subfiefdom. As the elected officials prepared to approve $11,383 to buy new furniture, one council member suggested that were the city to buy from stocks of state surplus furniture the price would be significantly lower.

Another city official, however, disagreed on grounds–get this –that the furniture already would have been used and would be mismatched. Mismatched, for heaven’s sake. Was Martha Stewart going to inspect? The other council members listened to the aesthetic objection and approved the original price tag for new furnishings.

Another gem: In a Pennsylvania municipality just over the Mason-Dixon Line, the state proposed reworking the traffic configuration of the town square. Among other things, the spiffy facelift would absorb some downtown parking places, which did not please merchants around the square where business anyway is not booming.

But the state’s idea had a tailwind–there was $900,000 available in federal grant money. Thus by a grotesque attitude toward federal and state grantsmanship, it wouldn’t cost the town at all. Besides (you may have heard this song before), if the town didn’t claim the brimming pot, some other burg would.

There were about 30 residents at the meeting (according to local news reports), all opposed to the cockamamie idea. The city council was divided, 3 to 3, so the mayor cast the deciding vote–in favor of the $900,000.

A British essayist some time ago offered the sobering thought that citizens in Western societies were losing “the art of governing themselves.” Indifference, disdain, cynicism all contribute to such a profound loss. The moral might be that none of this nonsense has a chance of changing if Americans stay home on Election Day. As they used to say in Boston, vote early and often.

COPYRIGHT 1998 News World Communications, Inc.

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