Politics & Policy

Wastebook 2014: Swedish Massages, Golf-Course Repairs, and Laughing Classes

Our annual report on some of the many ways the federal government wastes your money.

Ebola in America.

Security breaches at the White House.

Waves of unaccompanied minors pouring across our nation’s borders.

Iraq in turmoil, as radical Islamic terrorists threaten to take control.

Our nation’s heroes being killed, not by enemy combatants, but by the very veterans’ health system we set up to care for them.

And then there’s that health-care website that still doesn’t work.

As the world seems more and more chaotic, confused, and uncertain, leaders in Washington seem more and more distant, disconnected, and absent.

The current Congress is on track to be one of the least productive in 60 years. Fewer laws were passed over the past two years than by any Congress in half a century or more, and most of the bills that were passed had little consequence. While a lame-duck session is scheduled, the harsh reality is that the last two entire years were an extended “lame duck,” producing few meaningful results.

However, the problem is not just what Washington isn’t doing, but also what it is doing.

This morning I’m releasing Wastebook 2014, an annual report that looks at 100 of the most outrageous ways Washington spent your money over the past year. Although they cover just a small slice of the federal budget, the waste in these examples alone totals more than $25 billion. It comes at a time when few people trust government to tackle the big, important problems. The examples detailed in the report make it easy to see why.

Time and again the problem has been Congress itself, which forces federal agencies to waste billions of dollars for purely parochial, political purposes. Mississippi lawmakers, for example, required NASA to build a $350 million launch-pad tower, which was mothballed as soon as it was completed because the rockets it was designed to test had been scrapped years before. On the other side of the country, the U.S. Department of Agriculture attempted to close an unneeded sheep-research station in Idaho that cost $2 million a year, but a group of congressman stepped in to keep it open.

Much like Congress, thousands of federal employees who weren’t doing their jobs properly were sent home and paid to do nothing — many for years. Some committed crimes; others engaged in misconduct. Collectively they brought shame and dishonor to public service. But instead of being fired, they were effectively given paid vacations at a cost of $20 million.

While the IRS was politically targeting tea-party groups for excessive scrutiny, the agency handed over $4 billion to identity thieves because it failed to spot thousands of bogus tax returns.

One government contractor green-lighted security clearances for both notorious NSA leaker Edward Snowden and Aaron Alexis, the Washington Navy Yard shooter who murdered 12 people — just two among hundreds of thousands of background checks the Department of Justice said the contractor may have faked. Despite this, it received another $124 million in 2014 to conduct additional background checks. As a result, thousands of ineligible individuals may now have access to top-secret information.

The U.S. Coast Guard reduced drug and migrant interdictions while providing free patrols to keep party crashers away from posh private events on yachts and beaches along some of the country’s most exclusive waterfront estates.

The president requested $1.1 billion in emergency funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to deal with the thousands of unaccompanied children illegally crossing the border. Yet ICE paid $1 million in workers’ compensation to employees who were cleared to return to duty.

Pleas for assistance from hundreds of families whose homes were damaged by the “storm of the century” in Austin, Texas, were ignored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which instead spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to help clean up local golf courses.

The director of the National Institutes of Health claims that a vaccine for Ebola “probably” would have been developed by now if not for the stagnant funding for the agency, which has a $30 billion annual budget. Yet NIH found enough money to give Swedish massages to rabbits and to study how much women love their dogs.

NASA no longer has the ability to send astronauts into space, so it pays Russia $70 million per passenger for a round-trip fare to the International Space Station, where “design and creation of better golf clubs” is among the studies that are being conducted at a cost of about $1.5 million per hour.

Only someone with too much of someone else’s money and not enough accountability for how it was being spent could come up with these projects.

There are laughing classes for college students and a play for children about brain-eating zombies. The National Science Foundation (NSF) taught monkeys how to gamble and trained mountains lions how to use a treadmill. The Department of the Interior even paid people to watch grass to see how quickly it grows. The State Department spent money to dispel the perception abroad that Americans are fat and rude. But the real shock and awe may have been the $1 billion the Pentagon paid to destroy $16 billion worth of ammunition, enough to pay a full year’s salary for over 54,000 Army privates.

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Amazingly, a few days ago people were celebrating the fact that this year’s deficit was the lowest since 2008, at $486 billion. Only in Washington could you spend half of a trillion more than you have and give yourself a pat on the back.

As you read Wastebook 2014, remember that it is just a fraction of the countless frivolous projects the government funded in the past twelve months — all with borrowed money and your tax dollars. Every year taxpayers, regardless of their personal political leanings, raise their eyebrows and shake their heads in disbelief at how billions of dollars that could have been better spent — or not spent at all — were squandered. Then they ask, “But what are you doing about it?”

While I have offered hundreds of amendments to stop stupid spending, most have been soundly defeated. Perhaps there is no better example of Congress’s upside-down priorities than the Senate’s overwhelming rejection, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, of an amendment to defund the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska. Under the current Senate leadership, amendments are no longer even permitted, offering little hope that we’ll cut waste through the current legislative process.

Yet some victories are occurring despite the actions, and lack of actions, taken by Congress.

That bridge may have been approved by Congress, but it was never built, because of the public outrage it sparked. Other projects that made headlines after being featured in Wastebook met a similar fate. An airport in Oklahoma that averaged just one flight per month but was landing nearly half a million dollars in federal subsidies a year was closed after appearing in Wastebook. A day after Wastebook called out Beverly Hills for selling its federal community-development block grants to other cities at a discount — and then pocketing the cash, with no restrictions on how it would be spent — the Department of Housing and Urban Development instructed the jurisdiction to cease the practice. NSF canceled a climate-change musical that was showcased in Wastebook.

Some spending decisions are reversed before they can even make it into print, to avoid embarrassment. A few weeks ago my office inquired about a life-size inflatable foosball game the State Department had ordered in September for its employees. The day after the phone call, the purchase was canceled.

What I have learned from these experiences is that Washington will never change itself. But even if the politicians won’t stop stupid spending, taxpayers always have the last word.

I hope every taxpayer takes the time to glance through Wastebook and asks the question: Is each of these items a true national priority, or could the money have been better spent on a more urgent need — or not spent at all, to reduce the burden of debt to be paid off by our children and grandchildren?

— Tom Coburn is a United States senator from Oklahoma.

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