Investigations for the sake of investigations

January 23, 2023 4:44 am

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on preserving and protecting Democracy at Union Station on Nov. 2, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Michael A. McCoy | Getty Images)

The United States House of Representatives will be doing exhaustive (and exhausting) investigating into many things like Hunter Biden, Jill Biden, President Joe Biden, and Major Biden (the Biden’s dog, which has an anger management issue). They will also be conducting major investigations into how an enormous amount of money given to the states to combat COVID was spent fraudulently. Good. Sort of.

According to real, fake and suspect news sources, there was a phenomenal amount of waste, misrepresentation, and fraud which I would point out, goes with the territory when it comes to emergencies. Whether the Great Recession 0f 2008, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ira, or COVID, there are times when a rapid increase in funding needs to be made available fast. The faster money needs to be distributed, the less oversight is available because oversight is the enemy of speed.

There is a shopworn maxim among the governing class that if a program is easy to administer it is not fair, and if it is fair it is impossible to administer. That’s because to ensure fairness there has to be a way to make sure that the money goes only to those who deserve it (whatever that means), so there have to be rules put in place. To put the rules in place you have to have a group of people (called experts) to decide what the rules are. They have to form a committee which needs a staff which needs to be paid, so they need to have a budget. This takes time, and the amount of time it takes lengthens the amount of time it will take to distribute the money fairly. The fairer the program the tighter the rules and the tighter the rules the more administrators it needs and the more administrators it has the longer it takes. This can be a good way to make sure that money is not wasted on the undeserving by making it almost impossible for anybody to get the money in the first place, including the deserving. 

Unfair programs, being easy to administer, don’t spend much on administrative salaries and basically could just put the money in the back of a truck with a “help yourself” sign. So, pick your poison. What they do have in common is that they are both easy to investigate, so the Committee to Embarrass Whoever is in the Current Government Program should have a field day.

All this humor (at least that’s what I call it and if you don’t agree you could have stopped reading after the first sentence) is about a real problem, which is the dilemma of being fair when rapid action is required. There are times when people need monetary help fast, such as when the rent is due, and you can’t go to work because the business has closed due to COVID and the paychecks have gone away. The worker needs money to pay the rent, the landlord needs the money to pay their money to the bank, and the bank needs the money because—well, because they always do. You get the picture, the economy depends on everyone paying what they owe to the next person up the chain.

I have often thought about Americans’ particular obsession over who is deserving and the efficiency of overseeing deservedness. There is an administrative cost to everything whether private or public money is involved and at some point it’s conceivable that the cost of administration could exceed the benefits that it administrates. The Soviet Union comes to mind.

As far as the COVID money is concerned there are government watchdogs who do the analysis but—at least in the U. S. Department of Health—Congress has not provided the money to perform the oversight the law requires. I know that the Committee to Investigate will find waste (how can they not?), but I  hope that they find a way to curtail waste other than blaming people.

“Investigate” implies that blame will follow. Perhaps something will follow the blame, like fixing the problem, but I have my suspicions that the goal of the investigation is only to find blame.

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Jim Elliott
Jim Elliott

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.