How Lavish is Too Lavish?
The L word is getting thrown around again this week.
Still reeling from an embarrassing scandal involving a 2010 event in Las Vegas that cost taxpayers about $822,000, the U.S. General Services Administration found itself getting berated by congressional representatives over yet another awards ceremony. Although the agency’s inspector general is just beginning his investigation into the November 2010 event, that didn’t stop politicians from holding press conferences today to denounce the GSA. (Never mind that the agency has already put a stop to these types of events designed to reward employees for their work.) Media outlets from Politico to The Washington Post followed suit by posting stories on the briefings, invariably describing the event as “lavish.”
Conferences are always getting described as lavish, I’ve noticed. Politicians do it, journalists do it, even hotels do it—although they tend to imply a more positive connotation, as in, “Our elegant Lakeview Room and professional staff will ensure that your event is a lavish success!”
The dictionary definition of lavish—“very generous or liberal in giving or spending, often extravagantly so”—indicates a level of conspicuous consumption that goes beyond what is necessary. No taxpayer wants their government to behave in a way that’s even borderline extravagant. But does this latest kerfuffle really meet that level of excess?
According to the inspector general’s advisory letter on his investigation, initial findings are that the event at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Alexandria, Va., cost about $268,000. That includes:
–$20,738 for catering
–$13,334 for room and A/V rental charges
$7,697 for a Commissioner’s Reception for 200 people that included hors d’oeuvres, beverages, pastries and music provided by a guitar and violin duo
–$28,364 for 4,000 picture frames
–$20,578 for 4,000 drumsticks (It is unclear from the letter whether these are edible chicken drumsticks that are separate from the rest of the catering charges or musical drumsticks given out as commemorative items similar to the picture frames.)
–$41,734 in travel expenses for 49 attendees
The letter does not say for certain how many people attended the event, but it stands to reason that organizers bought a picture frame and drumstick for each attendee. (That’s the assumption under which NPR is operating.) That means the total cost for the conference comes to about $67 per person. By comparison, the total price tag for the Las Vegas meeting came to more than $2,700 per person. If those catering charges really did feed all 4,000 people, food expenses were just $5.18 a plate, which, as somebody who paid for a wedding in the last year, I can assure you is a pretty darn good deal.
How frugal does a government meeting need to be before it no longer qualifies as lavish? $100,000 for 8,000 people? $50,000 for all of the GSA’s 12,000 employees?
The inspector general is taking the time to investigate this conference, so there may very well have been some inappropriate spending that didn’t follow government regulations. We won’t know until his report comes out. Any conclusion drawn before that, including use of the L word, is premature and irresponsible. That’s right, The Washington Post. I just called you irresponsible. Oh, snap!
UPDATE: A blog post from The Washington Post has more details on the event, saying that it involved 1,000 employees participating in person and 2,600 by webcast. That makes the catering bill $20.73 per plate—still quite a bargain compared to my wedding. Oh, and the drumsticks? They’re of the drum variety, used in an exercise in which attendees played along to a beat while chanting about integrity and accountability.
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