When I wrote about the insane sums of taxpayer money paid to federal employees who weren’t even working yesterday, and noticed Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) was on the case, I figured the paid administrative leave scandal would make it into his annual Wastebook – that indispensable chronicle of absurd government spending, the cudgel you should reach for every time you hear a Democrat moan that spending cuts are impossible without sacking teachers and firefighters. I didn’t realize Wastebook 2014 would be released the very next day, and “Paid Vacations for Bureaucrats Gone Wild” would be the very first item.
If “punishing” the vast army of high-compensated federal employees camped on the Potomac by giving them paid vacations that can last for years doesn’t grab you, how about the government spending $856,000 of your money to put lions on a treadmill, $307,000 to teach synchronized swimming to sea monkeys, $387,000 to give Swedish massages to rabbits, or $171,000 to bankroll monkey gambling?
The Wastebook offers a lot more than just animal acts. There are plenty of Stupid Bureaucrat Tricks, such as $350 million spent by NASA on a launch tower for a rocket that was scrapped long before the tower was completed, north of $70 million to develop and deploy a high-tech ferry boat whose poor passenger capacity and high maintenance costs are bankrupting the Alaska town it was built for, $1.2 million for the EPA to build a warehouse where it stores years worth of junk paperwork that should have been recycled, and $45,000 wasted on a Colorado bridge that might have to be torn down and rebuilt because it used Canadian steel, in violation of the federal government’s “Buy America” rules. An awful lot of wasteful spending could be avoided if the right hand of this oversized, over-funded government knew what the left hand was doing.
NASA pops up several times in the Wastebook, as a classic example of an unfocused agency throwing bags of cash at projects with only the most tenuous connection to what most Americans think the space agency should be doing. For example, they spent $392,000 studying how humans would react to contact with extraterrestrials – something the private sector has been doing at a profit for decades, in the form of science fiction literature. They funded a $15,000 challenge to find the lost tomb of Genghis Khan, which would seem to have little to do with space exploration, unless it turns out he was an extraterrestrial. If so, NASA’s $30,000 study predicting the collapse of human civilization will be exciting news for the Khan’s fellow alien conquerors. NASA also blew $10,000 attending Comic-Con to “bring to life the science behind Marvel Super Heroes” – not their first foray into the funny pages, since they helped out with the production of the 2012 blockbuster “Avengers,” which went on to rake in $2 billion at the box office. Not to be outdone, the Defense Department spent $80 million trying to design a suit of powered armor like Iron Man’s, having apparently missed the part of the story where Tony Stark is a private sector entrepreneur who doesn’t need $20 million in R&D just to design a pencil, as one defense industry official quipped.
Many of the Wastebook’s boondoggles amount to promotional efforts by Big Government to ingratiate itself with various constituencies – you might have noticed the government funding a lot of zombie-themed projects to synchronize with the current “Walking Dead” craze. The DEA spent $95,000 building a museum to celebrate itself.
Some of the more cringe-inducing chapters involve misguided priorities, such as FEMA’s decision to bypass Texas homeowners after the “storm of the century” and rebuild a flooded golf course instead. Golf also figures prominently in the FAA spending $18 million on the low-traffic airport that brings well-heeled vacationers to Sun Valley. “Airports of our size don’t normally get grants of this size,” said the stunned airport manager. Yeah, well, most airports of your size don’t have Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks picking up their luggage at the carousel.
And then you’ve got the good old-fashioned pork-barrel spending. Wastebook 2014 is stuffed with more pork than a barbecue joint on SuperBowl Sunday. A great deal of the spending tucked into our gigantic appropriations bills was put there by individual representatives looking to bring home the bacon to their constituents, a time-honored practice that turns Congress into a cage match between looters. The rocket tower that doesn’t have a rocket is a good example, but there’s also an unnecessary sheep research station that costs taxpayers $2 million a year, $16 million to build a road through a largely abandoned shopping mall in Fresno, $15 million to transform a derelict Pennsylvania mall into a Hollywood studio, the million-dollar “airport to nowhere” in Syracuse, a minor tree-trimming project at another airport in Sioux Falls that somehow turned into a $5 million golf course renovation, and a grant of $200,000 to buy SWAT equipment for “the safest small town in America.”
Several timely entries detail what government health agencies did with all the money we thought they were spending on little things like Ebola preparedness, including $371,000 spent by the National Institutes of Health to discover if moms love their dogs as much as their children (the answer was “yes,” apparently), and $533,000 to study Buddhism. The “massages for rabbits” thing was an NIH caper, too.
There are scads of goofy federally-funded entertainment projects – from a kung-fu dance play, to Teddy Roosevelt and Elvis Presley making a “hallucinatory journey” to Graceland together. (Is there a zombie-themed government-subsidized musical? You betcha!) There are taxpayer-funded videogames, including one that simulates infantry combat so well that intelligence experts fear terrorists could use it as a training tool. Uncle Sam loves throwing good money after bad, as in the case of an “unwanted, unneeded, and unused ice house” in Louisiana that HUD just can’t stop pouring cash into, because the parish in question doesn’t want to admit the project is a bust and refund its original million-dollar grant. An outrageous, but unsurprising, amount of money is spent by the government on pushing its own agenda, from tax hikes to “green energy” programs, which means taxpayers are paying to propagandize themselves.
Senator Coburn is retiring, so this will be the last Wastebook he edits. Hopefully one of his fellow senators will pick up the baton and keep these books coming. “With no one watching over the vast bureaucracy, the problem is not just what Washington isn’t doing, but what it is doing,” Coburn remarked. “Only someone with too much of someone else???s money and not enough accountability for how it was being spent could come up some of these projects. I have learned from these experiences that Washington will never change itself. But even if the politicians won???t stop stupid spending, taxpayers always have the last word.”
Do we, though? With all due respect to the Senator, a great deal of the big-ticket buffoonery chronicled in his Wastebook series happens on autopilot. The checks are signed by bureaucrats the American people will never have a chance to vote against. Some Wastebook items are programs that have been running for years, with only the most dubious results, such as the Job Corps of America – $1.7 billion spent over five decades. It sounds good – who can be against a “job corps?” – and most Americans have very little idea of what it’s actually doing. Even if they did, where exactly would they go to vote it out of existence? It’s got $13 billion in additional funding secured through 2020. What can voters do to shut off that cash spigot, if they review the performance of the Job Corps program and decide it’s not money well spent?
Stupid spending can’t be micro-managed; the government has grown much too large and powerful for that. Leviathan can defend itself against fiscal reforms, with everything from taxpayer-funded propaganda to legions of angry dependents – quite a few of them millionaires – who will fight to defend their piece of the action, no matter how silly or wasteful it might seem to the rest of us. Everyone who received the money detailed in the Wastebook cares about that money more than the taxpayers who provide it, especially in the era of big-time deficit spending, where a good deal of the cash is conjured out of thin air. The only way to impose the sort of discipline Coburn advocates is to reduce both the amount of money government is given, and the amount it spends, while forcing it to balance income with expenses… in other words, force Uncle Sam to live the same way his constituents do. Only then will the bureaucracy start looking over its expenses and thinking long and hard about whether it really has three hundred grand to spare on teaching synchronized swimming to sea monkeys.