It seems that hardly a week can go by without Trump administration officials demonstrating that when it comes to frivolous spending on the government dime while the populace is told to make sacrifices, Marie Antoinette was a rank amateur.
The most recent example comes courtesy of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The New York Times reports that Secretary Ben Carson told his staffers the dining room table in his personal suite of offices was “covered in scratches, scuff marks and cracks,” as the Times put it.
The horror! This could not stand. So HUD officials — allegedly egged on by Carson’s wife — went off and spent $31,000 on a new custom hardwood table, complete with chairs and an accompanying hutch.
Not only did the HUD officials ignore the law, which demands they receive congressional sign-off on any furnishings of a department head’s office in excess of $5,000; there is now a complaint alleging that one longtime staffer was demoted when she resisted the excessive and illegal spending and that Carson’s spouse — who has no official government appointment — had pressured staff for a high-end renovation of her husband’s office suite.
But the violation of procedural norms is hardly the worst thing about this rather embarrassing just-another-day-at-Versailles action. Instead, it’s that this excess is occurring as the Trump administration is attempting to brutally slash the amount of money spent on the poor and indigent, all but telling them to toughen up if they expect to receive any help at all from the government.
The Trump administration is signing off on the plans of several states to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients, claiming they are doing it in the name of compassion. They are also proposing cutting the amount of food stamps that needy people receive, offering up as a replacement a box of processed, nonperishable foods including canned meat, which White House budget director Mick Mulvaney actually compared to gourmet food service Blue Apron. (Hey, they both come in a box, right?)
And when it comes to Carson’s HUD, the proposed cuts are deep. The recently proposed Trump administration budget for 2019 would slash HUD’s funding by 14 percent. That includes deep cuts to the Section 8 program and eliminating the $2 billion earmarked for public housing capital repairs, a program that already faces more than $40 billion in unfunded and uncompleted upkeep. This budget could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to New York City’s public housing authority, where conditions are so dire that some tenants lack heat in the winter and live in buildings with lead paint.
This isn’t just cluelessness. When it comes to the lives of the people whose homes he supervises, Carson bears more than a superficial resemblance to a Dickensian poorhouse supervisor. As the New York Times reported last year, when Carson visited HUD housing in Ohio, he appeared happy when he discovered a relatively Spartan setting lacking television for the residents. Carson told the Times that compassion means denying HUD recipients “a comfortable setting that would make somebody want to say: ‘I’ll just stay here. They will take care of me.’ ”
All of this is of a piece with the recent adventures of the Republican Party, where all too many elected officials (and, I must add, their spouses) appear all too sympathetic to their own comically ridiculous woes, while ignoring the real-life problems of just about everyone else.
It was, after all, just this month that it was revealed that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt was routinely billing the government for first-class flights to various junkets and business obligations, when previous EPA heads somehow made do with mere plebeian coach class. The reason? He was, apparently, tired of getting complaints about his policies from fellow travelers. It made him feel unsafe.
Meanwhile, Elle magazine recently published an interview with Louise Linton, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s wife, in which she compared going to a therapist to seeing a dentist, seemingly unaware that millions of Americans can afford to do neither.
It goes on and on. Last year, then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) complained that Americans were choosing to spend money on iPhones instead of health care. Then, after announcing his resignation midterm, he whined that members of Congress should receive a $2,500-a-month stipend so they could more easily afford the high cost of rental housing in Washington.
And who, of course, could forget then-private citizen Donald Trump’s ceaseless caterwauling about Obama family travel plans, which is conveniently forgotten when he heads off to one of his many golf courses?
Back to HUD: A spokesman told the New York Times that Carson was unaware of the decision to buy the $31,000 dining room set. But now that he is in the know, he thinks it was an appropriate expenditure and plans to keep it. Given the utter callousness and cluelessness routinely on display by so many members of the Trump administration, we should expect to see more attempts to make the lives of the poor worse — alongside more efforts to ensure they continue to receive the best of everything.