D. Dowd Muska


Continuing Tom Coburn’s War on Waste

December 10, 2015

The U.S. Senate isn’t solely for windbaggery. Every so often, solons in “world’s greatest deliberative body” produce something of value.

For several years, former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) issued annual “wastebooks” that documented the legislative branch’s war on allocative efficiency. With Coburn retired, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) has assumed the ugly duty of exposing “egregious, outrageous and unnecessary government spending.”

“Wastebook: The Farce Awakens” contains 101 items. “Each represents thousands, millions or, in some cases, billions of dollars that could have been better spent on cancer research, strengthening national defense, caring for veterans, or not spent at all to reduce our debt.” Given the enormity of the abuses, Flake encourages readers to ask themselves “if the federal government is really pinching pennies being frugal or if that claim is just a farce.”

“National security” and foreign policy (e.g., the Pentagon, Department of State, and Department of Homeland Security) grab the largest share of the registry. “Science” subsidies (e.g., the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation) follow, with the Department of Agriculture, Department of Transportation, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development rounding out the top five. Here are some lowlights:

• Over the last five years, NIH doled out $5 million to “Help A Hipster,” a movement to “take a stand against tobacco corporations” through targeting nightlife venues. In the incongruous explanation of the project’s leader, “Hipsters are hard to define, because being hard to define is part of their culture. They initiate trends, and for the moment, that seems to bring a focus on flannel, facial hair, skinny jeans and off-kilter hats.” So taxpayer revenue purchased services from a marketing agency, which suggested “riding your fixed gear bike, “styling your sweet moustache,” “finding gems at your local thrift store,” and “listening to your favorite band that no one has heard of” as distractions from smoking. But NIH cares about coffin nails in the Motherland, too. It handed $121,00 to an Arkansas historian to “create an ambitious and encompassing social, cultural, and gendered history of tobacco in Russia.”

• The federal government has no legitimate justification for its meddling in housing, but even by government standards, HUD is a fiscal fiend. Tens of thousands of public-housing beneficiaries have incomes that exceed eligibility requirements. If an applicant qualifies at the time of admission, no more questions are asked, and there isn’t a limit on “the length of time tenants may reside in public housing.” A Georgia housing-authority official doesn’t see a problem: “There’s no regulation that we have to make them move, so we let them stay.” After all, “they’re just happy where they are.”

• The National Science Foundation awarded grants to explore why koozies keep beer cold, publicize “Back to the Future Day,” and construct “a giant, live game of Pac-Man, complete with timers and electronic sensors.”

• The National Endowment for the Arts spread $115,000 around to promote puppetry, including gifts to the Union Internationale de la Marionnette, the Family Puppet Festival in Los Angeles, and the National Puppetry Festival in Storrs, Connecticut.

• The feds’ Afghanistan quagmire makes two appearances in the wastebook. Taxpayers are covering $110 million worth of annual expenses to “maintain hundreds of empty, unused, and excess buildings” in the Graveyard of Empires. In addition, the DOD spent “nearly $43 million” to build a fuel station in Sheberghan. It “dispenses compressed natural gas, which few automobiles in that country run on.”

Anecdotes are maddening enough, but when Flake turns to systemic problems, working folks will be tempted to riot. The federal government had 3,133 data centers in 2010, when the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative was launched. Five years later, the total was 11,700. Data-center sprawl is a “significant cost,” according to congressional auditors, including bills for “hardware, software, real estate, and cooling.” Closing 2,000 centers would save $5 billion.

Improper payments is a perennial scandal that -- surprise, surprise -- rarely draws attention. Every year, about $100 billion is squandered on unqualified recipients who enjoy tax credits, education loans and grants, school-lunch subsidies, unemployment insurance, energy assistance, and food stamps.

The indifference, fraud, ineptitude, corruption, dishonesty, inertia, and laziness listed in Flake’s 2015 wastebook can’t continue. Why? Entitlements. Nationalized pensions and healthcare are striving mightily to comprise 100 percent of Washington’s budget. “Discretionary” expenditures will surely dwindle, as fedpols slash at the small fry in order to cover Social Security checks and payments to Medicare and Medicaid providers.

In time, life-size Pac-Man, useless service stations in Afghanistan, and puppetry promotion might look like sound “public investments.”

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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