Amtower: A drop in the bucket

Frenzy about abuses of GSA’s small-purchase credit card program ignores its ample value

A recent study by the Government Accountability Office requested by Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has once again created a minor media furor over SmartPay, the small-purchase credit card program managed by the General Services Administration. Details about the program appeared on the front page of the Washington Post April 9. The story ran above the fold with a headline, “Federal Credit Cards Misused.”

The article summarized the GAO report, which provided great fodder for Page 1. The Post reporter, Dan Eggen, highlighted examples of blatant abuses from the report, but Eggen did not do original reporting on anything. He repeated what was in the report, including a statement that “agencies could not account for nearly $2 million worth of items identified in the audit, including laptop computers, digital cameras and, at the Army, more than a dozen computer servers worth $100,000 each.”

All right, $2 million out of $17.2 billion in fiscal 2006 alone! Does the phrase “drop in the bucket” occur to anyone besides me?

In 1989, GSA expanded its SmartPay program governmentwide after a one-year test program. Since then, the program has saved the government billions of dollars by helping it avoid the arduous task of performing paper-based procurements.

The SmartPay program gives frontline government employees  quick access to products and services they need. Most cardholders follow spending rules. Overall, the purchase card program is a solid program run by talented employees. Program officials manage three card programs — fleet, travel and small purchase — to the tune of $27 billion a year. Nearly 3 million cardholders use the program.

We cannot say the majority of lawmakers in Congress show the kind of fiscal responsibility they expect from federal employees. Let’s take a quick look at the spending history of the requestors of the GAO study: Coleman and Levin.

From Congresspedia: “It was revealed in mid-June 2007 that, in the Defense Authorization bill, Sens. Levin and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) secured more earmarks than any other senators. Of the bill’s $5.4 billion worth of earmarks, Clinton received 26 earmarks worth about $148.4 million, and Levin received 45 earmarks worth about $210 million.”

From the Minnesota Monitor: “According to data collected by Taxpayers for Common Sense, Coleman ranked 35th in the Senate with $172,180,750 allocated in earmarks.”

We’re talking about a couple million dollars in SmartPay abuses that cannot be tracked versus nearly $400 million in earmarks. Here we have headline-seeking Hill denizens, abetted by tabloid headlines in the Washington Post, to demonstrate why much of the rest of the country looks down on Washington and deservedly so. Those in Congress would like the world to forget that Levin is a graduate of the Abramoff School of Government at K Street University. Coleman would like everyone to forget he lost the Minnesota governor’s job to Jesse (anti-PAC-man) Ventura.

Come on back Jesse. We need you in Washington. Not that I have an opinion.

Amtower (amtower@erols.com) is partner at Amtower and Co.

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