The Federal Diary
The Federal Diary
Joe Davidson

IRS waste undermines federal employees

Uncredited/AP - This video image from an Internal Revenue Service video shows IRS employees portraying "Star Trek" characters in a video parodying the TV show that was made for a 2010 IRS training and leadership conference.

The Star Trek parody video that IRS employees made for an agency conference opens with a riff on the line about the spaceship’s mission — “to go where no government employee has gone before.”

They went too far.

Joe Davidson

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.

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When the Internal Revenue Service managers shot the video, and another about line dancing, for a 2010 training conference in Anaheim, Calif., they may have just as well handed bats to fed bashers.

Yet, it was a staunch supporter of federal employees who lit into the IRS at a House hearing Thursday. The session examined an inspector general’s report about the agency’s All Managers Conference for the small-business and self-employed division

The conference cost taxpayers at least $4.1 million, including $50,000 for the videos.

Federal employees have a keen sense of mission and service. No doubt, those in the videos share that. But in today’s environment, after an Obama administration crackdown on conference spending following a similar 2010 General Services Administration scandal, spending that kind of money is a disservice to the public and the workforce. In more generous times, that might not have been the case. But these are not generous times.

Members of Congress are outraged.

“You cannot take the money of American workers and waste it,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

A self-described “big defender of federal workers,” he is angry with tax collectors who spent taxpayer money on the “ridiculous Star Trek video.”

“I swear to God, I have looked at that video over and over again, and I swear I do not see the redeeming value.”

Perhaps, he said, Faris Fink, the division’s commissioner, who was at the witness table and who played Spock in the video, could explain its value. He couldn’t.

Even on the webcast of the hearing, Cummings’s anger was palatable — his face at times taut; his fingers pointing, jabbing for emphasis.

“It is not only a parody of a television show,” Cummings continued, “but a parody of what many people unfairly think about federal workers.”

What really upset Cummings, after watching the video at 3 a.m. the day of the hearing, was thinking about his working-class neighbors.

“The lady who got the early bus this morning, that’s her money . . . ,” he said. “The gentleman up the street from me who makes 45 [thousand] hauling trash — that’s their money . . .

“It was wasted.”

“In my district, I can tell you that $50,000 is a huge amount for families who are struggling to get by. That’s more than many households make in this country.”

In many ways, Cummings, a liberal in his 10th term representing Baltimore, is unlike Trey Gowdy, a second-term conservative Republican from Spartanburg, S.C. But at the hearing, both were eloquent when contrasting the IRS waste with low-income people they know.

Gowdy was a federal prosecutor when the IRS conference was held. At the time, he said, his co-workers were collecting money for colleagues “who were struggling to make ends meet.” A secretary came to him asking to borrow from the fund for her child’s birthday.

“She kept apologizing for having to do it. She kept saying, ‘I’ll pay you back. I’ll pay you back.’

“And at exactly the same time that young government employee single mom was borrowing money to buy her child a birthday present,” he said, his voice sounding as if it was about to crack, “other government employees were staying in $3,500-a-night rooms. Other government employees were spending more on promotional materials than that young woman makes in a year.”

According to the inspector general’s report, $3,500 is today’s cost of the presidential hotel suite occupied during the conference.

In the harsh light of today’s political and fiscal environment, the videos, in particular, diminish the federal workforce and undermine its credibility. Fortunately, the hearing did not have a fed-bashing feeling. Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) set a tone that was generally supportive of feds while finding fault with the IRS.

“Professional education is critical,” he said in his opening remarks, an important statement during a time of budget cuts.

“We want the federal workforce to feel when they have justified travel,” they can take the trip, he said. Issa doesn’t want the policy to be “no training, no travel, no interaction. Just the opposite. We want to get this right.”

Other federal employees, he said, “are cheated out of additional education and meaningful training by this waste.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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