Like the appointee who thought, gosh, I’m a big shot government official. On his first few government business trips, he booked first class airline tickets at government expense. Oops. Career staff told him they simply could not approve the expenses, and that he’d have to reimburse the government. Trouble was, the official wasn’t well off. He didn’t have the money, and said he’d have to take out a loan. Tough lesson.
Or maybe your appointee rates a driver. But those come with hierarchies of rules. Short of cabinet secretary, appointees mostly may not be driven home at night nor picked up in the morning. Tempting, but no can do. They’ve got to traipse in the normal way, like the career drones. I’m talking about normal times, of course, after we’re all vaccinated.
I spoke with a former chief financial officer who served two agencies — one medium, one large. Doug Criscitello now works as a managing director for Grant Thornton. He urged appointed newbies to make an immediate visit to the CFO career staff members. In fact, he said, returning appointees ought to also make that visit, because rules change.
Criscitello said the most common misconception people coming into government bring is that they’ll have some sort of slush fund or petty cash account. I mean, somewhere among those billions, right? I understand that instinct. For many years of my career I had a pretty darn good expense account. Company rules banned front cabin tickets, although in those days airlines were way more generous with upgrades for frequent fliers. But I could join airline clubs, fund staff lunches, order newspaper subscriptions and so forth on my own discretion.
If an employee did a particularly outstanding job on something, I could tell him or her to take the spouse to a nice dinner and send me the bill. I used to go running with one writer for a famous magazine who told me 20 years ago his editor could write a check for $5,000 on the spot.
That’s not government.
I asked Criscitello whether an appointed bureau or agency chief has a little fund for, say, staff bagels. He laughed, “no, that’s very much outlawed.”
Key syllable: law. More than violating a company rule, you could be violating, say, the Anti-Deficiency Act for a dozen bagels. The rich returnees, like Jeff Zients, the COVID “czar”, might just shell out personally for bagels — individually wrapped, of course.
High level people with nice offices might think there’s a decorating budget. Not likely, Criscitello said. He told me his office at HUD was nice and big, but the walls were devoid of art. A career staffer took him to a dusty basement room containing stacks of framed pictures. He says he just bought his own wall hangings — and left them there for the next CFO.
Having been in quite a number of federal offices, including a few at the Pentagon, I’ve always noticed that the furnishings often look tired. At the ground level, government agencies don’t seem to lavish a lot of money on accoutrements. I still remember one important policy office in that big, gray, Second Empire pile next door to the White House. The secretary’s desk had a drawer pull with a screw missing. The swinging handle had gouged out an arc in the drawer front. Notwithstanding the screw-loose metaphor, I thought, can’t the administrator stop by a hardware store and buy a 9-cent screw?
I note, though, the military does a better job than the civilian side of keeping veneers and brass-tone lamps polished.
If you want to redo that office — and it may well be a dump like that suite in the Old Executive Office Building — forget about it unless there’s a specific appropriation for it. As a career person, you can explain that with some work, you can get something in the 2022 fiscal year budget if you act fast. Maybe soften the blow by gifting your appointee a soft cloth and a can of Pledge.
Criscitello chuckles at the bruhaha over the acquisition of a new dining table former HUD Secretary Ben Carson ran into. Criscitello, who was HUD CFO during the Obama administration, recalled how shabby much of the furniture in the secretary’s suite actually was. But even a cabinet secretary is obligated to notify Congress of any decorating expenditures over $5,000, lest they run afoul of their funding statute. But apparently Carson never asked.
In 1953, frozen-food company C.A. Swanson & Sons was left with an extra ten railroad cars packed with 520,000 pounds of turkey. Salesman Gerry Thomas proposed turning them into frozen dinners packaged in three-compartment aluminum-foil trays, thus birthing what we now know as TV Dinners.