But in fairness, GOP politicians actually seem focused on the substantive problems at issue. And the Secret Service mess offers some important lessons about government that everyone should pay attention to.
This isn’t to say some Republicans aren’t happy to berate an Obama administration official before the cameras. But a member of Congress can see some political utility in that ritual and still be sincerely disturbed by what’s happening. And the truth is that it’s awfully hard to blame this on Obama, no matter how much you dislike him. There may be no agency where the president’s management abilities matter less than with the Secret Service. Unlike almost every other agency, they aren’t carrying out his policies. They have a very specific mission. The president can tell government employees how to administer Medicare or distribute clean energy grants, but if he started instructing the Secret Service where to position their agents at the White House, we’d say he should leave it to the experts.
But now we’re learning that those experts have been lax, and it appears that while their procedures need a good long look, a big part of the problem may be that the procedures aren’t being followed. That’s what happened when Omar Gonzales jumped the fence and got inside the White House. The door wasn’t locked, the alarm was muted, and so on. In the latest crazy story reported by the Post’s Carol Leonnig:
A security contractor with a gun and three convictions for assault and battery was allowed on an elevator with President Obama during a Sept. 16 trip to Atlanta, violating Secret Service protocols, according to three people familiar with the incident.
I’m pretty sure that nobody who’s not specifically authorized is supposed to get on an elevator with the president, but apparently this guy just strolled right on.
Now, because of all the scrutiny, confidential sources are revealing things like this to reporters, Congress is asking very pointed questions, and the agency is under tremendous pressure to get its house in order. And it happened because of some extremely close calls, but without anyone actually getting hurt. That’s very good news.
Because often, that’s what it takes. Shortcomings in performance have to be identified in order to be fixed, and nothing creates pressure for change like public scrutiny. One of the Secret Service’s cultural issues that people are now talking about is that agents apparently didn’t feel comfortable pointing out problems to their superiors, because they felt doing so could affect their careers. Which would mean that the Service is like pretty much every other government agency and private company or organization on earth. But right now, you can bet that Director Pierson and the people who work for her are all fearing for their jobs, as well they should be. And the response will hopefully be a tightening of procedures and a new sense that errors are going to come to light, so they had better work extra hard to avoid them.
The truth is that we need periodic controversies like this one. Even the most professional agencies are going to have their share of incompetence and screw-ups, and the light of public attention can bring needed change. So far, Republicans and Democrats seem equally angry about the Secret Service, for the most part anyway. Maybe this will prove to be a scandal whose primary result is not partisan bluster but actual reform. Imagine that.