GSA scandal: Is Congress engaged in hearing overkill?

Former GSA employees in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 17, 2012, prior to testifying before a House Transportation subcommittee hearing to investigate an excessive conference at a Las Vegas resort by GSA officials.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Witnesses of sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 17, 2012, prior to testifying before a House Transportation subcommittee hearing to investigate an excessive conference at a Las Vegas resort by General Services Administration officials in 2010.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Analysis

(CBS News) Congress is holding a pair of hearings today on spending by the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal procurement agency that has come under fire for a 2010 fundraiser that cost taxpayers more than $822,000. Those two hearings follow two other hearings earlier this week into the GSA scandal.

The decision to hold four separate hearings into the scandal raises a question: Does Congress' investigation into government waste amount to its own form of government waste, creating some sort of government waste vortex that threatens to suck all of us down into the Potomac?

Well, OK, maybe not that last part. But the first part of the question is certainly worth exploring. After all, any viewer of the hearings so far might be forgiven for wondering what, exactly, was being accomplished with comments like this one, from Republican Rep. Trey Goudy, in reference to a $75,000 GSA team-building exercise: "Working for the government is a sacred trust, which you have blown. So instead of a team building exercise, you might want to investigate a trust building exercise, 'cause you have lost it."

Goudy was far from alone in making statements like this: A number of lawmakers from both parties seemed more focused on expressing their outrage over the GSA's behavior than on engaging in a dispassionate investigation of what actually took place. And while their anger may not have been manufactured, they were certainly aware the cameras were rolling.

It wasn't all grandstanding. Inspector General Brian Miller, who investigated GSA misconduct, has had a chance to explain his findings publicly, and when they weren't making speeches lawmakers did manage to pose questions to GSA officials past and present about the findings. (Though Jeffrey Neely, the central figure in the investigation, asserted his Fifth Amendment right not to testify and did not answer any questions.)

There's also an argument to be made that the lawmakers' showmanship - self-interested though it may be - has its value. After all, seeing government workers get called before Congress to sit in a chair and be lectured like a naughty school kids is a powerful incentive for others in government to prevent the sort of behavior that could land them there as well.

The decision to hold the hearings are made independently by Congress' many committees and subcommittees, all of which have different (though sometimes overlapping) jurisdictions. The two hearings so far have been in the House: One by the wide-ranging Oversight Committee, and the other by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The Senate hearings today are being held by the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, which is part of the Appropriations committee.

While all of the hearings are focused broadly on ensuring that the excessive spending by the GSA is not repeated, they have different focuses. The Environment and Public Works Committee, for example, has jurisdiction over public buildings, which explains its connection to GSA. The Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee actually scheduled its hearing before the scandal broke -- the subcommittee simply added a probe of the scandal to its previously-planned hearing on the GSA's FY2013 budget request.

The Senate and the House are effectively independent, with different staff and different motives. The decision by a House committee to hold a hearing is thus not going to convince a Senate committee not to hold one of its own. Indeed, it might actually prompt a hearing. The Republican-led House, for example, has been working to tie the GSA scandal to the Obama administration. But the hearings in the Democratic-led Senate are expected to look at systematic, long-term problems at the GSA -- including under former President George W. Bush -- as well as the positive actions the agency has taken under President Obama.

In addition to providing general oversight, lawmakers say they can help them figure out possible solutions to the problem at hand that they wouldn't necessarily get from simply reading a report. And as a staffer with one of the committees told Hotsheet, "Congressional hearings are not expensive to conduct." While they take up lawmakers' time, the hearings are held in rooms that are already built, on days when officials would be on Capitol Hill anyway. Other than the glasses of water provided to witnesses, there is virtually nothing in the way of expenses.

So do the hearings constitute waste? It depends on your perspective. There's no doubt that there is overlap in what is being asked and what is being said in each hearing, and that lawmakers are sometimes more concerned with offering up camera-ready condemnations than investigating the situation at hand. But the hearings may help lawmakers craft solutions, they don't cost much and the shame visited on the participants could prevent future transgressions. And depending on your views of government, you may or may not think they have something better to do.