(by Stephen Dinan, The Washington Times) – This year’s Wastebook released yesterday does not show the $5,210 that the State Department tried to spend on a blowup, human-size foosball field for an embassy in Belize. But the fact that the project isn’t in Sen. Tom Coburn’s annual report on ridiculous spending choices is probably one of the biggest victories of the report, because it means the State Department canceled the project after the senator’s staffers asked about it.
It’s the other 100 projects in the report – including subsidies for professional sports stadiums and grants to study gambling monkeys – that the Oklahoma Republican said should have taxpayers steaming. “Only someone with too much of someone else’s money and not enough accountability for how it was being spent could come up with some of the zany projects the government paid for this year,” Coburn said in the report.
Plenty of lawmakers talk about rooting out government waste, but Mr. Coburn makes a cause of it. He deploys staffers to peruse newspapers and dig through government websites to spot the tens of billions of dollars in pork, boondoggles and extravagance that have contributed to the government’s trillions of dollars of debt.
Sen. Coburn is retiring at the end of this year after a decade in the Senate, meaning the 239-page, meticulously footnoted volume he released Wednesday will be his final Wastebook as senator. His departure is raising questions about who, if anyone, will pick up his oversight banner.
“To bureaucrats and politicians, none of this is waste, which is why the only way to stop wasteful Washington spending is by shining a light on it whenever and wherever it occurs, even if it is in your own state – especially when it is in your own state,” Mr. Coburn told The Washington Times. “That is why I think every member of Congress should issue their own version of Wastebook so we can debate and set our national priorities every year.”
The Times was allowed to watch some of the decision-making behind this year’s report as the senator and his staff talked through the projects, debated the order of the 10 most wasteful and drafted the report’s cover. This edition is designed to mimic the salacious supermarket tabloids in a commentary on how ridiculous some of the projects have become.
Leading this year’s edition is $19 million in salaries that the government paid to workers who were suspended from their jobs, usually because of misconduct that would have resulted in outright firing at a private company. Other highlights include the $50,000 spent to study whether sea monkeys’ swimming changes the flow of oceans, $450,000 that the Homeland Security Department spent on high-end gym memberships for staffers whose federal health insurance already pays for gym benefits and the increasing number of veterans who get disability payments by claiming sleep apnea at a cost Mr. Coburn said could reach $1.2 billion.
All told, Sen. Coburn identifies $25 billion in waste from the 100 projects.
Although everyone in his office from interns on up contributes ideas, Mr. Coburn is the one driving Wastebook. He spots items throughout the year and fires them off in emails collected by his legislative director, Roland Foster.
By the time Wastebook rolls around, the authors have more than enough items. The senator is a tough critic, shooting down write-ups when he thinks expenses could be justified or demanding details for proof that the government is truly profligate [recklessly extravagant or wasteful; carelessly and foolishly wasting money].
…The senator insists on highlighting projects from his home state of Oklahoma, figuring it’s only fair. He encountered one on butterfly farming, a $500,000 Agriculture Department grant to a town on an Indian reservation to help tribe members start raising and selling butterflies. The $500,000 is enough to provide every member of the town a starter kit and still have more than $300,000 left over, Mr. Coburn calculated. As of August, however, just 50 of the 845 tribe members had signed up.
The tribe wasn’t convinced it wanted to do the project until it learned it could obtain federal funding — which is exactly why the money is not a good expense, the Wastebook concludes. “I can’t imagine 300 people are going to be employed raising butterflies in Oklahoma,” the senator tells his staffers in one meeting.
Not every project is a victory. One left on the cutting floor this year involved Pentagon sponsorship of a video game festival. Mr. Foster spotted an advertisement for the festival on the subway and pursued the project, but in the end wasn’t able to get the Defense Department to disclose a cost figure.
Agencies are increasingly balking at cooperating with fiscal watchdogs like Mr. Coburn who believe they have a right to know how the government is spending [our] money.
His office now enlists the Congressional Research Service, with in-house research staff, to make some of inquiries. Mr. Coburn also asks for help from the Government Accountability Office [GAO], the chief investigative arm of Congress.
This year, Mr. Coburn had the GAO investigate the tens of millions of dollars doled out to federal employees on “paid administrative leave” – meaning they collect salaries even as many are on suspension for misconduct.
“Wastebook is like a scavenger hunt. It does not require a law degree or even years of D.C. experience, just some common sense and dedication with a leader who takes his role as a representative of taxpayers seriously,” Mr. Foster said. “If a 22-year-old intern can do this, why can’t a chairman of a powerful committee with a staff of dozens and a budget of millions?”
The State Department’s human-sized foosball game says a lot about how Wastebook is compiled.
One of Mr. Coburn’s staffers saw the project posted on USASpending .gov, a website that resulted from a bill sponsored by Mr. Coburn and then-Senator Barack Obama in 2006. The foosball system was one of a few game purchases posted by the State Department.
Mr. Coburn’s staff fired off an email with questions to the State Department. The department promised to look into the project, and a day later quietly posted a change order to USASpending.gov canceling the expense.
It turns out the project was intended for the U.S. Embassy in Belize and was supposed to be used as a management tool for leadership training and team-building. But when Mr. Coburn flagged it, department officials reconsidered.
…One federal agency Sen. Coburn has battled is the National Technical Information Service, a Cold War-era agency that acts as a clearinghouse for government reports.
After the Government Accountability Office reported that many of the documents the service sells to other government agencies are available online free of charge, Mr. Coburn demanded explanations. He then found out the agency was selling his reports, too, causing him to demand an end to the “ridiculous situation.” …
The National Science Foundation also has been a frequent Coburn target – particularly the agency’s funding for political science research. Last year, Mr. Coburn managed to win an amendment that effectively halted federal funding for political science papers, though the prohibition was dropped this year.
Political scientists were enraged at Mr. Coburn’s move and mounted a fierce campaign to defend their funding, insisting that taxpayer funding was a mark of its importance.
The academics also took personal umbrage at Mr. Coburn. Several of them jokingly blamed the senator when fire alarms forced an evacuation of the hotel at this year’s American Political Science Association convention in Washington.
The association didn’t respond to a request for comment about its battles with Mr. Coburn. …..
Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Reprinted from the Washington Times for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from washingtontimes.com.
1. What is the purpose of U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn’s annual Wastebook?
2. What recommendation does Sen. Coburn have for all members of Congress?
3. How does Sen. Coburn compile the Wastebook every year? Be specific.
4. What is the total amount of government waste identified by Sen. Coburn in the 2014 Wastebook?
5. a) Why is 2014 the last year Sen. Coburn will be putting out a Wastebook?
b) CNN reported: “In the 2014 edition of the Wastebook, Coburn notes that getting rid of the practice of pork barrel spending is next to impossible. ‘What I have learned from these experiences is Washington will never change itself,’ he said.”
[NOTE: pork-barrel spending, or earmarks, refer to the funding a member of Congress adds onto an unrelated spending bill for a specific project (in his/her home state) that benefits voters, in an effort to ultimately assist in re-election.] In light of the fact that the Wastebook has not caused a lot of the wasteful spending to stop, how important do you think it is for another Senator to continue the report next year?
6. a) What is a “fiscal watchdog”?
b) Sen. Coburn believes we have a right to know how the government is spending our money. Do you agree? Explain your answer.
7. CNN also reported:
Congress ended this fiscal year with a debt under a trillion dollars for the first time since 2008, according to the Wastebook report, but Coburn notes that the deficit still added $486 billion, or half a trillion dollars, to the national debt, which is “quickly approaching $18 trillion.”
Of the entries listed in his book, Coburn, who will retire in 2016 after serving two terms, asks, “Is each of these a true national priority or could the money have been better spent on a more urgent need or not spent at all in order to reduce the burden of debt being left to be paid off by our children and grandchildren?”
a) Do you agree with Sen. Coburn? Explain your answer.
b) Ask a parent the same question.
c) Different from the research and various programs Sen. Coburn highlights, ask a parent if your family benefits from any government programs that he/she thinks should probably not exist.
d) Pork-barrel spending, or earmarks, refer to the funding a member of Congress adds onto an unrelated spending bill for a specific project (in his/her home state) that benefits voters, in an effort to ultimately assist in re-election.
How can voters get Congress to end the practice of pork barrel spending?
CNN reports: “Some of the worst offenses listed in the book:
- The National Institutes of Health spent $387,000 to give Swedish massages to rabbits with a mechanical machine. Coburn notes that the NIH has a $30 billion annual budget and that the director of the NIH claims an Ebola vaccine would “probably” be ready now but for a lack of funding.
- NASA pays Russia $70 million per passenger to send American astronauts to the International Space Station and back. The space agency is spending $3 billion on the ISS this year and will conduct studies, many proposed by elementary students, including one on the “design and creation of better golf clubs.”
- “Only someone with too much of someone else’s money and not enough accountability for how it was being spent could come up with” a $10,000 program paying people to watch grass grow. That grass — saltmarsh cordgrass, which can grow to be 7 feet tall — was being observed in New Smyrna Beach, Florida as part of a Fish and Wildlife Service program.
- The National Science Foundation spent $171,000 to teach monkeys how to play video games and gamble in order to “unlock the secrets of free will,” according to the report.
- Other examples include $5.2 million for “voicemails from the future that warn of a post-apocalyptic world,” $1.97 million for a Facebook page and P.R. for fossil enthusiasts and a $46,000 grant to support the annual Clean Snowmobile Challenge — a contest to determine who can make the most environmentally friendly snowmobile.
- The National Science Foundation is also planning on spending $1.5 million to monitor Americans’ attendance at science festivals. Another $200,000 will go to a study meant to determine “why Wikipedia is sexist,” according to the Wastebook report.
- The State Department spends $90 million a year on cultural exchange programs, including one such program which sought to dispel a Pakistani journalist’s perception that Americans are “fat, rude, and cold.”
- The Army spent nearly half a million dollars — $414,000 — to develop a video game called “America’s Army, ” a version of which terrorists have used to train for missions, according to National Security Agency e-mails sent in 2007 and leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
- The Department of Defense is spending $80 million on a real-life “Iron Man” suit. The Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) would need 365 pounds worth of batteries to power the suit, according to the “Wastebook.”
For Sen. Coburn’s list of 100 most wasteful expenditures, see Sen. Coburn’s 2014 Wastebook at his website: coburn.senate.gov
(OR in PDF format): coburn.senate.gov/public//index.cfm?a=Files.Serve&File_id=6932c44c-6ef4-491d-a0f1-078b69f1f800
For an article on Sen. Coburn’s 2012 Wastebook, go to: studentnewsdaily.com/daily-news-article/coburn-calls-out-senate-cohorts-as-biggest-waste-in-government
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