The government plays by two sets of rules where accounting and accountability are concerned.
In the case of accounting, the government plays the role of the ferocious pit bull, barking madly on the nightly news, foaming at the mouth, and chewing the legs off of alleged "corporate crooks."
In the case of accountability, the government tries to seize the moral high ground. Bush the Invincible stands before banners draped with the words "Corporate Responsibility" and promises — human nature notwithstanding — to eliminate fraud and corruption.
And yet the reality of government work demonstrates that the government does not apply such standards to itself.
Consider the government’s take on corporate accounting. The Securities and Exchange Commission (the "SEC," but not to be confused with the noble institution which is the Southeastern Conference in college athletics — the greatest football conference, by the way) insists that companies with shares traded on public stock exchanges must issue financial reports according to government rules.
The rules promulgated by the SEC are allegedly to protect consumers from charlatans in "big business." A company that must disclose financial details, the thinking goes, cannot dupe you into buying worthless shares.
Yet consider the government. More than a few talking heads in the service of the State have claimed, in recent years, that government should be viewed "like a private company." Citizens have been referred to as "shareholders" or "stakeholders," with the idea that we all go down with the ship of State when it sinks.
The government, however, does not account for every penny of your hard-earned money that it extorts through compulsory taxation. Try to get the Social Security Administration to tell you how it "invested" those huge chunks of your paycheck which may very well exceed what you are legally able to contribute to an Individual Retirement Account.
Similarly, where accountability is concerned, the government unsurprisingly fails to sends itself to prison.
Janet Reno "took full responsibility" for the deaths of 80 people at Waco. The dead included many children who very likely died painful deaths from poison gas or smoke inhalation. Janet Reno, however, is not in prison, and has not been executed for murder.
Without a doubt, the government plays by two sets of rules. One set of rules is designed to screw ordinary American citizens to the wall and strip their wallets bare. The other set of rules is designed to allow the thieves to get away with waste and murder.
And so a proposal: since the Congress is in the mood to "get tough," why not get tough on politicians.
Government agencies should be required to document, on a quarterly basis, how and where their money is spent, and make quasi-prospectuses available to the taxpaying public. There must be strict penalties for waste, as well as for manifest failure to achieve advertised "public service" goals. Perhaps agencies should be put out of business after a year or two of flamingly bad performance. Goodbye, Amtrak, it’s time you were put up for sale.
Similarly, the heads of government agencies, like their corporate counterparts, should face ridiculously draconian personal punishments. If a CEO who signs an earnings reports can now be punished for the mistakes of unknown underlings in an accounting department, then the same should happen to the head of the FBI or Health and Human Services as well.
Fair is fair.
Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.
© 2002 David Dieteman