Federal spending gets more ridiculous every year, and a new congressional report details 100 of the most egregious examples.
Following in the footsteps of chronic-waste chronicler Tom Coburn, Oklahoma senator James Lankford published “Federal Fumbles” late on Monday afternoon. The football-themed report examines not only ridiculous spending but also costly or burdensome overregulation.
Here are NR’s top-ten favorite — which is to say, most scoff-worthy and absurd — examples of how the government wastes your time, energy, and hard-earned cash.
10. $283,500 on Department of Defense bird-watching
In the sage scrub of the California coast lives a small grey bird known as the California gnatcatcher. Its biggest enemy? Cowbirds, which like to hijack the gnatcatcher’s nest and lay eggs. The poor gnatcatchers never quite realize they’re raising someone else’s kin.
The federal government designated the gnatcatcher a threatened species more than two decades ago, and the Department of Defense has not-so-bravely rallied to its rescue. This year, DOD approved a $283,500 grant to monitor the day-to-day life of baby gnatchatchers.
9. $48,500 to write about Russian smokers
It’s no secret Russians like their tobacco. Roughly 60 percent of Russian men and 25 percent of Russian women smoke, averaging just over half a pack of cigarettes each day, according to a 2011 report by the Kennan Institute.
What that has to do with the U.S. National Institutes of Health, however, is unclear. In April, the NIH announced it would grant some hapless grad student $48,500 to pen the definitive history of smoking in Russia over the past 130 years. This tome must “reconstruct the culture of tobacco using newspapers, journals, industry publications, etiquette manuals, propaganda posters, popular literature, films, cartoons, and advertising images.”
The NIH apparently thinks someone is going to a) read this; and b) learn from Russia’s mistakes. That seems unlikely.
8. $406,419 to look at a “chicken and egg” problem
America’s feeling pretty polarized these days, and the National Science Foundation wants to know whether to blame TV pundits.
So it gave Massachusetts Institute of Technology more than $400k to ponder the burning question: “Does media choice cause polarization, or does polarization cause media choice?”
Just wait until the study is published and discussed on cable news. That will be really meta.
7. $3.1 billion on vacation for federal employees placed on administrative leave
Just a few weeks ago, NR wrote about how DEA employees caught patronizing prostitutes were given bonuses rather than being fired, as if anyone needed more proof of how incredibly difficult it is to lose a government job.
The GAO reports that five federal agencies alone spent $3.1 billion on workers placed on administrative leave in a two-year timespan. A lot of that cash — $775 million, to be exact — went to public employees banned from their desks for more than a month. (“Primarily,” Lankford’s waste book finds, “workers are placed on leave because they are under investigation for misconduct.”)
Why work for the government when you can get paid not to?
6. $5,000 for a documentary film about Madison County, North Carolina’s best fiddler
The National Park Service forked over $5,000 to Mars Hill University so it could make a documentary film about a local musician. Optimistically, they assumed it might lure tourists to the region.
It’s not the biggest expenditure, but it’s still irksome. “A $5,000 grant, which is $500 greater than the monthly income of the average American family, does not compare to the billions of dollars of frivolous spending by the federal government each year,” Lankford notes. But “with all due respect to [the musician] and his accomplishments, a documentary about a North Carolina fiddler does not benefit the U.S. national interest or the American public.”
5. Nearly $150,000 to understand why politics stress us out
The National Science Foundation seems to have taken note of how stressful it can be to debate politics with friends and family.
It’s such a problem, apparently, that the NSF needs to spend taxpayer cash to delve into its root causes.
“One could argue,” the report quips, “that the most stressful thing about politics is the waste and bloat of government spending, especially researching topics such as this.”
4. Regulating llama farmers out of existence
Remember those adorable llamas who escaped in Arizona last winter? Well, the federal government seized on the opportunity to ruin their home.
According to Lankford’s report, the Department of Agriculture decided the owners of these llamas needed a license to “showcase” their animals, which they raised especially to help little kids and the elderly in their community. When the owners tried to fight back, they found themselves tangled in even more red tape.
Eventually, says llama owner Karen Freund, they just gave up. The federal government had “just totally destroyed everything I had planned for my retirement,” she said.
3. $65,473 to figure out what bugs do near a lightbulb
The National Park Service was wondering what happened when insects used to dark, rural environments suddenly encountered a light.
It’s a stupid question, the report notes, because “anyone raised in a rural area can attest that one way to attract insects is to turn on a light.”
No word yet on how many bureaucrats it took to screw in that light bulb.
2. Making Americans do their dishes twice
In 2015, the Department of Energy mandated that dishwashers must use no more than 3.1 gallons of water per load. The problem? Dishes don’t really get clean with so little water.
So now, Americans have to wash their plates twice.
“Families already have enough to worry about without adding extra loads of dishes to the mix, simply due to poorly conceived federal regulations,” the report notes.
1. $35,000 for solar-powered beer
The Department of Agriculture wants your suds to be greener. So in Michigan and Wyoming, it paid for solar-panel installations at breweries.
They’re literally drinking away taxpayer money.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and the Tony Blankley Fellow at the Steamboat Institute.