Terror In A Handful Of Pork

For Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, December is the cruelest month, weeding government waste out of the dead land.  He’s just released his “Wastebook 2010,” a long, depressing poem about our bloated government at morning striding behind us, and at evening rising to meet us.  The book is available for the bargain price of $11.5 billion, which you have already paid, so you might as well enjoy it.

In his introduction, Coburn speaks of Americans in a recessionary economy “cutting out luxuries” and “making tough choices between necessities.”  This is precisely what the government never does.  The common impression of big government spending involves sucking in tax money from the productive sector and using it to buy votes, but some of the wild cash-burning activities outlined in the Coburn report don’t even rise to that venal level of utility.  This isn’t just a tale of government buying our votes with our own money; it’s a tragic comedy about piles of money being simply thrown away.

A government that respects no conventional idea of fiscal restraint never has to make tough choices between necessities.  The Democrat Congress came into power with elegant promises of “pay-go” discipline, in which new spending would be financed with cuts in existing programs.  These hollow assurances were quickly forgotten, and by the time the 111th Congress came to die in an unreal city, under the brown fog of a winter dawn, it was considered an insult to even suggest something like unemployment extensions should be offset by spending cuts. 

Besides recovering wasted and unspent funds from the great “stimulus” heist of 2009, Congress could have paid for those “vital” unemployment benefits by cutting junk like the $1.8 million given to Las Vegas to fund a graveyard for old neon signs.  Or how about the $700,000 spent to study greenhouse gas emissions from cow burps?  Half a million bucks paid to an “international AIDS conference” in Vienna, where the agenda included wine tasting and tours of picturesque castles?  Another half million for a study of male prostitutes in Vietnam?  Or, believe it or not, two hundred thousand dollars paid to study why political candidates make vague statements?

How much money does the government lose through fraud and lax accounting?  Son of man, you cannot say, or guess, for you know only a heap of broken spending programs, where Internal Revenue beats, and Medicare gives no shelter.  The Department of Veterans Affairs blows $175 million per year on buildings it doesn’t use.  Medicare was taken for $35 million by a criminal gang filing bogus reimbursement claims through non-existent medical clinics.  The IRS gave $112 million in tax returns to prisoners who filed fraudulent paperwork. 

Coburn relates the highly instructive story of Shreveport, Louisiana, which was so desperate to spend extra “stimulus” money, instead of returning it, that $1.5 million was wasted on cleaning up apartments slated for demolition.  Adding insult to injury, apparently no one checked to see if the contractors had done an adequate job.  A lot of our money is burned away by government agencies that would consider it poisonous to leave a dollar unspent, for fear that such thrifty behavior would yield smaller budgets in the future.

Washington spends a lot of money studying things: three million bucks to study the way people interact with online games like World of Warcraft, a quarter million to study “how Americans use the Internet to find love,” twenty thousand dollars to help the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms learn the identity of a 2,500-year-old mummy, $800,000 to study the effects of a genital washing program in South Africa, $66,000 to study political talk shows. 

When it’s not studying the way people play video games, Washington blows big bucks on creating its own: $600,000 for a game that simulates being a wolf, $137,000 for a game that teaches what it feels like to fire someone (“harnessing the power of video games in the service of humanistic principles!”), $60,000 for a “video game space mouse” used by the Government Printing Office to teach kids the history of printing.

Speaking of printing, the government wastes $28 million printing a Congressional Record nobody reads on paper, with many copies “going directly to the trash.”  Overall, Coburn estimates $930 million could be saved if government employees learned to produce less hard copy.  The Department of Energy has a $190 million electric bill, from which $2.2 million could be saved if they’d use power more efficiently.

Our uncontrolled federal deficit has left us in the rats’ alley, where the dead men lost their bones.  It’s long past time to start hacking away at the billions in waste chronicled by Senator Coburn.  Suggesting a tax increase on any American while this kind of money is being lost, stolen, or thrown away is an insult, bordering on a crime.  Our Big Government utopia appears to be surrounded by a vast waste land.