The broken government of the United States of America

The broken government of the United States of America

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WASHINGTON, October 11, 2014 – The United States government is not working very well. Placing aside partisan debates between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, about what the proper functions of government should be, all of us expect a level of competence in the performance of legitimate tasks.

When it comes to protecting the President, the Secret Service seems not to have been up to performing its job. Even the White House front door was left open and the alarms to announce the presence of an intruder were muted.

When it comes to treating the health care needs of our veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs has seriously failed to do its job.

When the President’s health care plan was to go into effect, government computer programs failed. All of the heads if these departments are now gone.

Time will tell if their agencies do any better in the future.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman expressed the view of many when he recently wrote:

“Just look at Washington these days and listen to what politicians are saying and watch how they spend their time.  You can’t help but ask:  Do these people care about the country anymore?…Yes, yes, I know.  They’re all here to do ‘public service.’

But that is not what it looks like.  It actually looks as if they come to Washington to get elected so they could raise more money to get re-elected.

That is, until they don’t get re-elected.

Then, like the former House Majority leader Eric Cantor, they can raise even more money by cashing in their time on Capitol Hill for a job and a multi-million-dollar payday from a Wall Street investment bank they used to regulate.”

Consider the job of investigating individuals who apply for security clearances, an inherently governmental function in the past. In September, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced that it would not renew any of its contracts with USIS, the major Virginia contractor that provides the bulk of background checks for federal security clearances.

USIS’s caseload was significant, averaging about 21,000 background checks a month. USIS conducted the background clearance for National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. It also provided clearance for Aaron Alexis, who killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard. Recently, USIS has been in the news because it was the victim of a cyberattack, which potentially exposed the records of thousands of government employees.

Now, the company is facing a Justice Department lawsuit that accuses it of defrauding the government over incomplete background checks. Lawmakers have criticized the government for awarding new contracts to the company in the wake of the legal actions. A separate division of the company, for example, won a contract worth up to $190 million from the Department of Homeland Security for work other than background checks after the allegations surfaced.

Eligibility for accessing classified information was revoked in 2009-13 for more than 18,500 military and civilian employees and contractors working for the Department of Defense, according to an audit released in September.

The report was one of a series being conducted by the federal government as the result of high-profile “insider threats,”‘particularly the September 2013 Washington Navy Yard shooting rampage by a civilian contractor with security clearance to the restricted area.

USIS is also facing a whistleblower lawsuit that accuses the company of submitting 665,000 background checks that were incomplete.  Until the Clinton administration, providing background checks and security clearances was a governmental function.  USIS was created when it was spun off by the OPM in an unprecedented privatization plan in the mid-1990s.

It has been performing the checks ever since. Needless to say, the incentive structure for a private for-profit company and for a government security agency are quite different.

As we have seen, doing as many clearances as possible, spending as little time as possible on each background check, has been the policy of USIS. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate’s Federal workforce subcommittee, says,

“I don’t think we’ve moved as quickly as we should have moved. This would have been a higher priority if I had my way about it.”

Tester does point to two pieces of legislation he sponsored that became law.  The Security Clearance Oversight Reform Act provides the inspector general in the Office of Personnel Management access to additional funding to investigate background-check improprieties. A different measure seeks to improve the cooperation of local and state authorities with federal background investigators.

Another issue is the number of backgrounds to be checked.  More than 5.1 million people are eligible for security clearances.There are some efforts beginning to cut that number, along with the vast amount of information the government classifies, far too much in the view of many who have reviewed this program.

In October, James Clapper, director of national intelligence, ordered agencies to determine whether everyone with a security clearance really needed it. The goal is to reduce the number of active security clearances by at least ten per cent.

The fact that USIS’s performance has caused it to lose its contract is, of course, a positive development. But conducting security clearances will not return to being a governmental function,  but will simply be contracted out to other private contractors, among them, CACI International and Key-Point Government Solutions.

“CACI is actively expanding our workforce to accommodate the anticipated increased level of support to OPM,” Mike Rhodes, CACI’s executive Vice President and general manager of background investigations business, said.  According to The Washington Post, “He did not say whether the company might hire the USIS employees, a common practice in federal contracting.”

No one seems to be overly concerned with the lackadaisical manner in which private companies have been doing background checks and if it were not for the Snowden case—and twelve people dead at the Washington Navy Yard-the issue would probably never have drawn attention.

Similarly, if someone had not managed to enter the White House, problems with the Secret Service would not have been addressed.

The Department of Veterans Affairs was indifferent to its shabby treatment of ailing veterans until journalistic exposure of what was happening forced the issue.

Government, to the detriment of all us, is not working as it should.  This goes beyond the partisan bickering of Republicans and Democrats.

There is no liberal or conservative way to collect garbage, maintain parks of build highways.  In Washington, there is no Republican of Democratic way to protect the president, provide for the health of veterans, or conduct background checks for security clearances.  Those in charge, both in the White House and the Congress, seem to have other priorities.  Both the President and Republican leaders in Congress are focused on the next election, not the mess they have jointly created in the nation’s Capitol.

In September, Gallup reported that “only 8 per cent of the one-third of all Americans who are following national politics ‘very closely’ approve of the way Congress is handling its job.”  One wonders who can be found in that 8 per cent.  And if the past is any indication of the future, which it usually is, the overwhelming majority of incumbents of both parties, will be re-elected.  What does that tell us about the health of our democracy?

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.