Poor Seema Verma! The Trump administration’s administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is enduring an unfriendly news cycle after a Democratic Congressional probe discovered her sizable consulting bill. Verma paid $13,000 to have consultants slot her on discussion panels and get her included in Washingtonian’s ‘Most Powerful Women in Washington’ puff piece. She paid $977 to a consultant to place an op-ed she ‘wrote’ on Fox News’s website. And then, there was the $2,933 spent on consultants to organize a ‘Girls’ Night’ party in Verma’s honor. All told, Verma spent her first two years in office with at least 15 communications consultants orbiting her like the moons of Jupiter, charging the government up to $380 an hour for their consultative prowess. The total bill over less than two years amounted to nearly $6 million, more than $8,000 per day.
Currently, the scandal is being represented as controversial because Verma was promoting herself, rather than her agency. Also, much of Verma’s spending, about $3.5 million of it, went to Republican-aligned consultants. Pish-posh! As if taxpayer money going to partisan political operations is a big deal, when we already have NPR, Planned Parenthood, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. No, the problem is not that Verma hired Republicans, but that she hired consultants.
Verma was herself a consultant before taking her administration job, so perhaps she should have seen this outcome coming: $6 million spent on PR consultants made the consultants much richer, and now she has become very well-known for overspending on PR consultants.
But consultants have become barnacles on the American political and public policy establishment, offering the most efficient way to take large sums of money and transmute them into empty air. In 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to Newark public schools, bolstered by $100 million from other sources. As the New Yorker wrote four years later, more than $20 million from that donation went to a vast squad of consultants, who cost more than $1,000 per day on average to provide services like teacher evaluation, data analysis, and of course, public relations (if you want somebody to say nice things about you, $1k a day helps a lot!). Since the beginning of the coronavirus panic, consulting super-firm McKinsey & Co. has racked up $100 million in contracts, including $40 million from the Defense Health Agency alone. The company’s army of 26-year-old MBAs were hired by Andrew Cuomo to create a ‘Trump-proof’ plan for reopening New York’s economy, which was so successful that many are now speculating that New York will never recover from COVID-19’s economic headshot.
But the summit of consulting waste is the biennial election cycle. Every two years, a vast army of consultants convinces narcissists and idealists to launch obviously-doomed campaigns that are very lucrative for the pollsters, press flaks, and ad men advising them. And so, in 2016, Ben Carson’s campaign spent $78 million, Marco Rubio’s spent $105 million and Jeb Bush’s spent $139 million. All of them were routed by an extemporizing billionaire. In 2020, Michael Bloomberg managed to spend more than $1 billion before losing to America’s national vegetable. Those campaigns didn’t win any elections, but they had many individual winners — the consultants who enriched themselves handsomely off the vanity of their patrons.
Were Shakespeare alive today, he might write that ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the consultants.’ But of course, he wouldn’t actually write that, because he wouldn’t be a playwright at all. If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d realize it was far more lucrative to go into consulting.