Thursday, December 19, 2013

Stupid spending? You decide. -- Dec. 19, 2013 column


Senator Tom Coburn is making a splash with “Wastebook 2013,” his detailed list of nearly $30 billion in wasteful federal spending projects.

The Oklahoma Republican has become a hero in some quarters for his annual report, revealing the wacky ways the government spends taxpayers’ money. 

Among the 100 projects he ridicules this year:  $325,525 for a National Institutes of Health study on angry wives, $914,000 to promote romance novels, $17.5 million in tax breaks for brothels in Nevada, and $3 million for NASA research into, in Coburn’s words, “the search for intelligent life . . . in Congress.”

Good ones. The report, released Tuesday, always makes for entertaining, if annoying, reading, although few in Congress pay it much attention. That’s because most of the bone-headed spending decisions are more complicated than they first appear -- and because career politicians know it’s better to give and to receive. 
Grateful constituents remember their elected friends, come election time.

Besides, one man’s trash is another’s, well, Christmas tree.

Coburn comes across as a Grinch who’s particularly vexed that the government helps Christmas tree farmers. He scoffs at the Agriculture Department’s Specialty Crop Block Grants that go to the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association and five other Christmas tree groups, as well as to the California Dried Plum Board, Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, Michigan Maple Syrup Association, and dozens of wine promotions, among others.   

In Coburn’s home state, the Oklahoma Pecan Growers used grant money to attend international trade shows, which they said helped expand their market overseas, benefitting the state’s economy.
Altogether, specialty crop grants totaled $50 million, which tells me the government is spreading a fairly small amount to reach a lot of farmers.   

Coburn called out the Agriculture Department’s Value-Added Producers grant program that gave Glenmary Gardens in Bristol, Va., $213,000 to expand processing and marketing of locally grown fruits and vegetables for jellies, ice creams and flavored syrups.  He also disapproves of free wine and cheese on Amtrak’s Auto Train.

I had no idea my tax money was promoting American prunes in Japan or a “USA Pear Road Show” in China, but that strikes me as more wholesome and sensible than other government endeavors.

Coburn, a medical doctor, concedes that some of the projects are OK. He questions whether they’re the right spending when we’re $17 trillion in debt.  

Much of the big-dollar waste, no surprise, is at the Defense Department, which is trashing $7 billion in military equipment in Afghanistan rather than selling it or sending it home. The rationale is that it costs more to transport it than to leave it. 

Coburn is retiring next year, and one wonders who in Congress, if anyone, will chronicle waste, although Coburn followed Sen. William Proxmire, Democrat of Wisconsin, whose monthly Golden Fleece awards hitting government waste made headlines from 1975 to 1987. Proxmire died in 2005.

Some tea partiers contend Coburn’s 177-page report is itself an example of wasteful spending.  How much staff time and money does it cost to produce a report with 930 footnotes?  Couldn’t he have done it with fewer pages and less flashy graphics?

They’re good questions, but don’t hold your breath for answers.  And that’s another problem with singling out projects as “stupid” and “egregious,” words Coburn throws around liberally. Everyone has a different idea of what’s wasteful.

It’s incomprehensible to me that the State Department spent $630,000 of our hard-earned money to buy “friends” and followers for its Facebook and Twitter pages.  Or that a million-dollar bus stop with wi-fi, heated benches and sidewalks in Arlington, Va., has a roof that barely protects against rain and sun.

The reality is that most of the wasteful projects in this year’s report could appear in the next one because of the inertia of federal agencies, the near total absence of congressional oversight and political support for spending.

“The reason it’s hard work to cut spending is because somebody’s ox gets gored,” Coburn says. “Somebody doesn’t get money. Most members of Congress are more interested in getting themselves re-elected than they are in fixing what’s wrong with the country.”

Economist Milton Friedman took a philosophical approach. “I say thank God for government waste,” he said in a 1975 interview. “If government is doing bad things, it’s only the waste that prevents the harm from being greater.”

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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