It's hard to say that 2014 was a stoundout year for epic government screwups, scandals, and embarrassments. After all, H. L. Mencken commented decades ago that "every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under." He was absolutely right, but hardly original (as he no doubt would have conceded). That sad realization was already hoary with age then.
But it's true that government officials put the time in over the past 12 months to ensure that Mencken's words continue to ring true. Below, in no special order, are a few of the notable stupid government tricks of the year gone by.
Ferguson and America's internal army of occupation
Concerned civil libertarians and policy watchers, including Reason writers, long warned that law enforcement agencies look less every year like your neighborhood beat cop and more like the Russian army touring Ukraine. By and large, those warnings went unheeded by the public, most of whose members saw little to fear from the "thin blue line" they were assured stood between them and America's transformation into Somalia with good burger joints.
Then Ferguson happened. The controversial shooting of Michael Brown sparked protests in the Missouri community. In turn, police responded with a bizarre and intimidating display of heavy weapons, camouflage uniforms, and armored vehicles.
"If you don't want to get shot…just do what I tell you," Officer Sunil Dutta of the Los Angeles Police Department wrote in the Washington Post in response to those horrified by the display.
Despite such defenses, Missouri police pulled in their paramilitary horns as the Ferguson protests continued. But new incidents, including the videorecorded killing of Eric Garner by a New York City police officer, largely over untaxed cigarettes, kept police-civilian relations in the headlines across the entire country.
That debate continues. But military equipment continues to flow to police departments, including nearly 4,000 assault rifles just since the Ferguson riots.
The Secret Service loses its gloss
Wasn't there a time when the Secret Service had a reputation as an elite investigative and protective force? Sure there was! Charged with foiling counterfeiters and shielding V.I.P.s including the president from harm, Secret Service agents were once cheesy movie-worthy.
That image may be a tad tarnished after this year.
It didn't help the Secret Service that a White House aide was implicated in carousing with prostitutes in Colombia—nobody expects politicians and their minions to refrain from engaging in friendly relations with constituents, friendly foreigners, or strangers they meet in dark alleys. But the Secret Service itself was dinged when it turned out that its employees not only like sex (honestly, so what?), but that, more seriously, they run out on the tab when it comes time to pay up for their fun.
That's not cool.
But a taste for booze and hookers didn't implicate the Secret Service's core competencies. Screwing up on protecting the White House did that. In September, Iraq war veteran Omar Gonzalez jumped the White House fence armed with a knife and got all the way into the East Room before he was stopped.
Now the question isn't whether the Secret Service has screwed the pooch (and skipped on the check). It's whether it's been asked to do too much, or just got competency cooties from its association with the gormless Department of Homeland Security.
The Veterans Health Administration—deadlier than an IED
The creeping U.S. welfare state may lack the cradle-to-grave coverage that's bankrupting our European cousins in such continental style, but federal agencies are trying. The Department of Veterans Affairs, through the Veterans Health Administration, certainly has the grave part down.
By gaming waiting lists, and hiding the number of vets who were actually in line for health care, VA officials jazzed up their performance reviews and qualified for bonuses. And, oh yeah, they killed people. Even the VA's own assistant inspector general concedes the lethal connection.
Veterans certainly deserve better treatment than they've been receiving. Unfortunately, this year's scandal is only the latest evidence that the federal department created to assist them isn't up to the job. Year after year, the quality of the health care provided to those who have served in the armed forces has proven substandard and sometimes dangerous. It's just that this year that mistreatment took on a deliberate air.
CDC's handling of Ebola was almost as scary as the disease
Speaking of health care, when the Ebola scare hit this year (and yes, it's still a scourge in Africa) the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the agency responsible for leading the U.S. response to such health threats, responded with guidelines that were "absolutely irresponsible and dead wrong," in the words of an infectious disease expert.
Those guidelines contributed to infection—Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, where two nurses caught Ebola from a patient, followed them—but fortunately no deaths. The CDC finally corrected its error in October by essentially cribbing new guidelines from Doctors Without Borders, the private organization based in France that's the recognized international leader when it comes to coping with the world's nastier diseases.
The very public screwup of the Ebola response followed the CDC's complete mishandling of samples of anthrax and bird flu. In two separate incidents, CDC personnel were accidentally exposed to the first disease, while a dangerous dose of the second was mistakenly shipped to a laboratory expecting something a bit less virulent.
The CDC's tendency in recent years to allow itself to be distracted by public health bugaboos of the moment, such as tobacco, got much of the blame for its bungled response to a true health threat.
Then again, it could have been worse. The Department of Homeland Security turned out to have ill-considered stockpiles of expired and misplaced supplies for dealing with the sort of pandemic that Ebola happily did not become. And while the CDC might be a bit butter-fingered with its samples it didn't follow the lead of the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration by forgetting about vials of smallpox, dengue, influenza, Q fever, and ricksettsia in an unused storeroom.
The Social Security Administration catches up on very old paperwork
Sometimes, the Social Security Administration (SSA) overpays benefits to recipients, and then needs to grab the overpayments back. Social Security officials are also a little bit behind on their clerical duties. Read "little" to mean "decades." So the SSA then enlists the IRS to help it go after people for debts incurred by a government paperwork screwup decades ago.
In at least some cases that made the headlines in 2014, the government intercepted tax refunds to adults because, bureaucrats claimed, they benefited from Social Security overpayments made to their now-dead parents in the 1960s and 1970s.
After suitably negative press and widespread public condemnation, Social Security announced a "halt to further referrals under the Treasury Offset Program to recover debts owed to the agency that are 10 years old and older."
So all's well that ends well. For now.