Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, is a scourge against congressional pork, but too few pay attention to one of his central arguments against government waste: In addition to being expensive and corrupting, earmarks distract attention from other abuses of taxpayer dollars.
"[Earmarks] take Congress' focus away from the massive amount of waste and inefficiency within federal agencies," Mr. Coburn explained in National Review Online. "In typical years, the number of earmark requests outnumbers oversight hearings held by the Appropriations Committee by a factor of 1,000 to 1. Instead of processing tens of thousands of earmark requests, the Senate should increase the number of oversight hearings from a few dozen to hundreds."
A quick perusal of recent Pork Reports filed by Mr. Coburn's office shows what he means. Much of the waste identified comes from agencies or federal grantees misusing federal funds until caught by vigilant local auditors or local media outlets. It's the sort of abuse that would happen less often if Congress were paying closer attention.
Cook County, Ill., for instance, consistently failed to follow through with doling out federal disaster funds promised to people whose homes were ruined by 2008 flooding. As the local ABC affiliate reported Sept. 15, county officials invited several thousand of the same victims to a picnic at the zoo - financed from those federal relief funds - featuring music, a buffet, fountain drinks, T-shirts and door prizes. In Jefferson County, Ky., a Medicaid contractor sent its executives - on the taxpayers' dime - to luxury spas and resorts, paid for limousines and expensive meals, financed a million-dollar lobbying and PR effort, and even spent $10,000 for an inflatable character for a Kentucky Derby parade.
That's small potatoes compared to $69 million in welfare cash spent in Las Vegas casinos, vacation spots such as Hawaii and Florida's Disney World and on cruise ships embarking from Miami. Even watchdogs are living high on the hog: An advisory panel tasked with preventing waste in the 2009 federal stimulus bill met Monday at a luxurious Ritz-Carlton in Phoenix, where the scheduled topic was how to prevent waste, fraud and abuse.
Closer congressional oversight would make it less likely that bureaucrats and grantees would think they could get away with such abuses. Earmarked pork, on the other hand, sends the signal that using federal funds for personal benefit is an expected perk.
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