The head of the National Institutes of Health said that if it weren’t for politicians flatlining its budget, NIH probably would have developed an Ebola vaccine by now.
But there has been less attention paid to NIH’s myriad multimillion-dollar indulgences into social scientists’ curiosity, such as the study that gave Swedish massages to rabbits, or $371,026 to see how much moms love their dogs.
Life is a series of trade-offs, and the challenges government faces are not so much about agencies obtaining more funding as about prioritizing the funds they have, according to Sen. Tom Coburn’s farewell compilation of wasteful federal spending.
In his “Wastebook,” released Wednesday, the immediate question is not about big government or small government — only stupid government or efficient government.
It is filled with 100 projects that many Americans would scoff at. Their funding, if redirected, could pay for other programs prized by liberals, while conservatives might use the savings to lower taxes. Some examples:
• $1 billion to destroy $16 billion worth of ammunition.
• An “anti-terror” grant for one of the quietest small towns in the country.
• A $2 million “Facebook for Fossil Enthusiasts” page and $3 million for a “Think Again, Turn Away” Twitter account aimed at discouraging terrorists from carrying out attacks.
These examples might sound silly, but the amounts wasted are serious.
“The Job Corps costs taxpayers about $45,000 per student per year — more than four years of tuition at the University of Texas,” the report said, adding that the program resembles a homeless shelter filled with drugs, violence, and bureaucrats who, 50 years after the program’s inception, are now just going through the motions, completing tests for students so they can get their graduation numbers up.
Liberal campaign ads often portray conservatives such as Coburn, who will soon leave his Senate post, as uncaring people who gleefully cast votes to cause America’s poor to starve and bridges to crumble.
The Department of Transportation had the opportunity to fix a bridge, the Oklahoma Republican writes, but instead elected to spend $200,000 on a Gateway to the Blues music museum on Mississippi’s Highway 61.
Coburn served in a Congress that authorized funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Program to provide “decent housing and a suitable living environment, and by expanding economic opportunities, principally for low- and moderate-income persons.”
But HUD used $3.5 million of that money to build water parks instead of housing for the poor.
Coburn’s list details a pattern of government excess that benefits the rich and powerful more than the poor.
Millions of dollars are spent on “corporate welfare for mega-farmers” and lost to tax breaks allowing the super-rich to “rent out their luxury pads tax free,” Coburn writes. The Small Business Administration, meanwhile, granted an enormous loan guarantee to help Disney’s Polynesian Resort get a makeover.
The way federal dollars are doled out to localities from Washington means federal grants have a way of encouraging pie-in-the-sky ideas for which there are good reasons private financing wasn’t available, as the report illustrates.
If you asked local residents, Coburn writes, “it is probably safe to say that most folks would greet any proposal claiming to be able to transform a hollowed-out old Philly mall like Logan Square into the next MGM with a raised eyebrow or roll of the eyes” — yet the feds chipped in $15 million.
Local governments then put up matching funds, creating a spiral of irrationality.
In several cases, federal transportation grants funded advertising campaigns that lobbied residents of some cities to vote for higher taxes so rail projects could be built — thereby shaping priorities instead of meeting them.
In other cases, localities built projects they didn’t really want because the federal government happened to have funds earmarked for a specific type of project that year.
Agencies themselves fall prey to a similar trap. NASA doesn’t have enough money to launch real space programs, so it uses the money it does have on projects not relevant to its mission, such as a $15,000 contest “to locate the lost tomb of Genghis Khan.”
Many examples of waste come from the human resources practices of the government’s sprawling workforce.
Half a million was spent on a gym with an “Aura Spa, Bang Salon, Fuel Bar, Gear Shop, Endless Pools, luxurious locker rooms, and the rooftop Penthouse Pool and Lounge” for Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees.
Fewer than 1,000 veterans suffered from sleep apnea in 2001, but today 143,000 veterans have mysteriously contracted the treatable, non-debilitating disease — after word got out that they could get a 50 percent disability rating if they convinced a doctor that they suffered from the condition, bringing bigger paychecks than those received by some amputees.
And “nearly 60,000 federal employees received paid leave for an entire month or more over a two year period,” often while under investigation for wrongdoing including “criminally negligent homicide, and sexual abuse,” the “Wastebook” notes.
“Out of 67,000 Social Security Administration employees, nearly 10,000 were on administrative leave for ten days or more during the first six months of the year costing nearly $40 million, and no one knows why,” Coburn writes. “The reason for all the paid absences is unknown as SSA does not record why employees are on administrative leave.”
The “Wastebook” also cited the Washington Examiner’s investigation into a proposed memorial in Washington for President Eisenhower, a proposal that has so far generated more controversy than concrete.
A $350 million rocket tower was built in Mississippi at the request of one of its senators, even though the tower serves no purpose for NASA — part of a pattern in which even politicians who advocate limited government will support wasteful spending if it takes place in their state.
That senator, Roger Wicker, is a Republican, raising questions about whether a Senate controlled by the GOP would really stamp out waste.
Coburn helped shut down an airport in his own state that was costing taxpayers half a million dollars a year to operate one flight a month, and he has singled out a federal grant for butterfly farming that is also in Oklahoma.
That is a rarity that will be even more rare next year. Coburn voluntarily limited himself to two terms in the Senate, then cut his second term short, citing health problems.
But his fifth and final “Wastebook” is not so much a ride-off-into-the-sunset moment as a note of urgency and despair: “Under the current Senate leadership,” he notes, “amendments are no longer even permitted, ending any hope of actually cutting waste through the legislative process.”