Driving for Miss Hazel

THE GAP BETWEEN THE GOVERNMENT AND THE GOVERNED

I thought I had seen everything when it came to imperious behavior on the part of high government officials. I was wrong. The latest Clinton administration official to come under scrutiny tops them all—and fuels the growing cynicism of Americans toward their government.

Last summer we first learned about the extravagant overseas junkets of Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary. According to reports she diverted $400,000 from other Department of Energy programs to help pay for her lavish trips. She apparently needed the extra money because of the expensive jets she chartered—like the art-deco 747 once used by Madonna.

The latest development in Secretary O’Leary’s exorbitant saga is her department’s inability to account for $255,000 of the $1.1 million spent on taxpayer-funded “trade missions” to India and South Africa.

Meanwhile, the press is blissfully missing the point in its reports of Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary’s travels. What matters isn’t the difference between Secretary O’Leary’s claimed expenses and what she can substantiate. The real story is the chasm that has opened between the government and the governed.

Secretary O’Leary isn’t alone in organizing expensive overseas junkets. Members of Congress have scheduled at least 25 similar trips between now and the beginning of February—right in the middle of the budget crisis. Some will last over three weeks—and all will be at taxpayer expense.

The ordinary citizen sees matters more clearly than the Washington elites. Like Michael Kinsley, formerly of the New Republic, they understand that the real problem in Washington isn’t what’s illegal. The real scandal is what’s legal.

No alleged accounting irregularity damages the relationship between people and their government more than the fact that a “public servant” can charter a luxury plane, hop on board with staff and guests, and gallivant to all sorts of exotic places, all at taxpayer expense.

What’s worse, this is all taking place at a time when unemployment benefits are about to run out in more than a dozen states and Meals on Wheels is about to shut down because of the budget impasse.

Washington bureaucrats live on the other side of a yawning chasm. The American people see an out-of-touch governing class taking off on vacation, at taxpayer expense, instead of doing the job they were sent to Washington to do.

Democracy is only possible when the governed trust the governors. Francis Fukuyama defines trust as the expectation that members of a group will put the good of the group ahead of selfish, narrow parochial interests. This kind of trust is undermined by the sight of our leaders helping themselves to perks the average person wouldn’t dream of.

Governance is, above everything else, an exercise in moral authority. Those who represent us should live under the same restraints as the rest of us. That’s the real lesson in the O’Leary scandal.

Until the press and those who govern understand this, the American people have every right to be cynical—to the detriment of the concept of self-government.


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