A Secret Service agent hops on the Metro …

Three governmental entities — the Secret Service, the Veterans Affairs Department and the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority — often carry the adjective “troubled” when named in newspapers and websites. That’s not quite right. “Troubled” implies something’s been done to them, not by them.

Every government agency goofs up. They’re comprised of people. People may grasp the concept of perfection, but we can never grasp perfection itself. But the troubles of the Secret Service, VA and Metro elicit...

READ MORE

Three governmental entities — the Secret Service, the Veterans Affairs Department and the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority — often carry the adjective “troubled” when named in newspapers and websites. That’s not quite right. “Troubled” implies something’s been done to them, not by them.

Every government agency goofs up. They’re comprised of people. People may grasp the concept of perfection, but we can never grasp perfection itself. But the troubles of the Secret Service, VA and Metro elicit particular scorn from their various constituencies, employees and Congress.

Why? Because these agencies do things we care about, often in a personal way.

Regardless of our feelings about a given occupant of the White House, as a nation we cherish the institution of the presidency. Admit it, you old Washington insiders. You walk past the White House on what used to be Pennsylvania Avenue and you can’t help but feel like you’re near the center of the universe. So when a few Secret Service agents show up drunk or let a nut-job run into the East Room, we take it personally. Those of us who remember the JFK assassination and the attempts on Gerald Ford, twice, and Ronald Reagan also recall the professionalism of the Secret Service in those instances. And, for that matter, of Vietnam veteran Oliver Sipple.

Tom Temin
Federal Drive host Tom Temin

Regardless of what people think of a foreign policy or military deployment, no one thinks veterans should get anything but the nation’s full support. So when some VA bad apples abuse their authority and give crummy service to veterans, we get incensed.

As for Metro — thank heavens I almost never have to ride it — it has the power to make daily life for nearly a million people either pleasantly efficient or wretched. Lately, it’s mostly been wretched. Metro has managed to make a whole region crabby because we’ve seen how good it can be.

Congress can’t fix Metro. It’s paid for by a byzantine formula of dollars from the several jurisdictions it serves, and by an ever more expensive fare box. Its maintenance costs are soaring as it ages. It has safety issues no one can seem to quite nail down. It has capacity constrained because it was conceived and built with only two tracks. That makes it decidedly non-resilient when one track is blocked for some reason. At least in New York they can re-route locals on the inner express tracks. Somehow all the governors and county councils and executives have to figure this one out for themselves. Metro’s hapless board — which includes a couple of federal officials — has been trying to find someone to become general manager for nearly a year.

The Secret Service needs to fall back on its creed and those elements of its culture that made it one of the most admired agencies, almost like a civilian Marine Corps. It needs a way to get rid of the bad actors quickly. And it needs a bigger staff to avoid long shifts, fatigue and burnout. A joint House-Senate hearing on the Secret Service this week focused on how many people wrongly and knowingly accessed the long-ago application file of a congressman. Namely Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who’d been hounding the agency over a host of other issues. I don’t buy the argument the Secret Service necessarily needs an outsider to come in and clean things out. I get the sense Joe Clancy, the long-time agent who returned as director, knows enough to understand which buried bodies have to be expunged, but also has the cred to rally the greater part of the workforce that just wants to do a great job.

As for VA, it too is capable of greatness in service of veterans. But two recent  and exhaustive reports, one by the Center for a New American Security and one by the Mitre Corporation, suggest VA should get out of the routine medicine business. That move would leave it free to concentrate on what it does really well, taking care of the acute, wartime injuries — both mental and physical — unique to veterans. That would mean a smaller VA, but a lighter, more focused and more agile one. Such a solution is probably not politically possible.

Big screw-ups occur, to be sure. Government can lumber and stumble along, as issues drag on and money, time and opportunities go down the drain.  Yet what I find hope-inspiring in these agencies’ travails is that people still care — citizens, politicians and government practitioners themselves. And that even small progress by individuals can make a difference when the people in charge don’t. A successful diagnosis and surgery, a state dinner or papal visit occurring without a hitch, a train operator who turns cheerful station announcements into short arias. Those victories deserve celebration.