I have been following the expenditures of Secretary Scott Pruitt, something that would surely get me fired or demoted if I worked for him (which I do not). Now, there are lots of ways to reflect on his spending, including a determination of whether he really is physically at risk. And, if he actually is, we do need to spend to protect him for sure. How much that costs is a different question.
So, I want to focus first on expenditures that are hard to justify because they do not require inside or confidential knowledge of Sec. Pruitt’s safety. Then, I want to add these expenditures together and see what else could be been purchased for the same dollars. With that listing (Items A — D), I hope readers will be able to assess whether government money is being spent in ways that further our priorities and our values. After all, spending is a surrogate for what we care enough about to spend to support it.
And, to be clear, it is not clear that we could actually move the monies so easily to other places.
Let’s consider the pens just purchased (silver with engraving) for Secretary Pruitt to give away to dignitaries who visit. (I assume he is keeping at least one for himself and family members.) Total cost: $1560. Now, that seems like one expensive gift when we have caps on value of gifts a government official can receive, and add to that, it is not recyclable, which would seem to be a goal of the EPA Secretary. Also, even if legally permissible to charge the Government for pens, I always thought gifts should be funded by the giver if they are personal and not outside government limits for gift-giving.
Now, we have expenditures of $43,000 for soundproofing of a room. I assume we aren’t taping the sounds of birds or animals facing extinction for educational and preservation purposes in this room. I think a white sound machine would be way cheaper and I am wondering whether the Secretary of EPA has such high level meetings so frequently that he needs such a room. And, if he does need such a room, might he — — on those relatively rare occasions — — use a room in another part of the Government that already has such a room? I have been in such rooms across the federal agencies; I am sure they could be shared (as in shared services).
Then, we have the costs for refurbishing one’s office, a cost that is capped by the Government at $5000. I get the need for “freshening up” when a new Secretary arrives in office. But, many a leader has been criticized for making that renovation a first priority and overspending. And, for an example, consider organization and college presidents who lost or nearly lost their positions for such costs. Apparently, the spending was $9600 and included a refurbished desk (always good to refinish when possible to save dollars and protect the environment), a frame for $2,500 (I get that frames are expensive from personal experience but this must be one amazing frame), a Captain’s desk for $2963, and packing and shipping of art from the Smithsonian. Hum. Seems to me one could have paid for some of this out of one’s own pocket to stay within the government limits of $5000. So, let’s say the “overspending” was $4,600.
Now we have expenditures of $9000 for all sorts of counter-surveillance devices and a sweep. Special locks with biometrics were installed. I find it hard to believe that the EPA is such a terrorist hotspot to require this and I am NOT talking here about the hiring of a private security firm, security vests and travel protections measuring in the millions when totally.
If we total all these items together, we have unnecessary expenditures of $58,160, remembering that is on the conservative side (so to speak as it does not include all the first class travel and hotels at rates above that permitted and accompanying entourages and other personal safety measures which are in the millions). So, let’s just add in $41,840 (so we get to $100,000) that could have been saved from the millions spent on security.
Here are four items that $100,000 could buy, recognizing that the purchases would be from different government agencies and that the $100,000 spending just described would not be easily reallocated; so we can call this a thought exercise.
A. Meals on Wheels and other similar programs provide food for senior and disabled individuals who are homebound. Meals on Wheels provides 250 days of food for a cost of $2765 per person. That means that with $100,000, approximately 36 seniors could get means for 250 days. Not a bad expenditure.
B. Now, speaking of hunger, many children have food scarcity on week-ends (and weekdays too but that’s another story) and there are backpack programsthat provide kids with food to last them from Friday afternoon til Monday morning. $140 can feed one child in this program for the entire school year. So, with $100,000, over 700 kids would have week-end food and avoid hunger. Not a bad expenditure.
C. Looking at a different type of option, we all know (or should know) that reading to young children has many benefits, and success in school is among the social determinants of health. We also know that reading fosters creativity and imagination. Many young children do not have books in their home and parents or guardians do not read to these kids. Suppose that suitable books, with empowering stories and multi-racial heroines and heroes could be purchased at $7 per book with shipping. That would mean that for $100,000, over 14,000 books could be purchased and distributed. And, if one of my children’s books were selected for such purchases, I would actually donate my time to any school that got 50 books or more — — to read the book and train the parents on how to engage children in reading activities. Not a bad expenditure.
D. We have been reading buckets about Open Source and Open Solutions. Indeed, there are enormous benefits within education and healthcare for Open Source materials. With that, we know that we are moving to privitazation of healthcare for Veterans and well as moving within both the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to privately created electronic health records. These private entities are serving to replace the existing open source system deployed by the VA for decades.
While we can debate the effect and effectiveness of this Open Source electronic health record system (which is NOT cost free) used by the VA, we certainly can see the value in open resources. What if the DoD or the VA obtained a membership in OSEHRA, a organization dedicated to open sources and solutions so they could work with others on improving healthcare delivery across state lines, attend educational programs, garner new information and benefit all patients who would have greater protection (think Puerto Rico and death toll there) if electronic health records were readily accessible? Perhaps DoD and VA are already members, so this would be a renewal membership. Cost of membership (although there are different categories for organizations): $100,000. Not a bad expenditure.
Here’s my not so subtle point. Secretary Pruitt’s purchases are not benefiting large numbers of Americans. Yes, they are benefiting him and his team perhaps. But, might we want to think about the greatest value for the greatest number when we spend government money? I get that $100,000 is a small number within government circles. It is basically a rounding error. A pimple on an elephant’s behind. But, for individuals that sum is vastly more than many people’s yearly salary and for individuals of all ages and stages, this amount of money could feed them or clothe them for days.
My plea: let’s not stay silent as we see our Secretaries, supposedly dedicated to helping our nation and its people, overspend or spend frivolously. Imagine the good that can come from even small savings if they were applied thoughtfully, wisely and with an eye to serving the people of our Nation.
Is that such a big ask?
Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.