COBURN: ‘Wastebook’ unearths government excess

From caviar to Congress

When Americans go to the polls we won’t just be making a decision about what kind of government we want. We will be making a decision about what kind of government we will tolerate. In recent elections politicians from both sides of the aisle promised to go through the budget line by line and make hard choices. That hasn’t happened. The only change Washington has been interested in is in your pocket.

This week I released my annual “Wastebook” report, featuring 100 examples of mismanagement, wasteful spending and special interest deals that illustrate just how far Washington continues to go to avoid setting priorities.

Consider a few examples:

Instead of working to close the massive hole in our federal budget, our government spent $350,000 through the National Science Foundation to study how golfers are better when they imagine a larger golf hole.

While millions of Americans are struggling to put enough food on the table for their families, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) spent $300,000 to tell Americans to eat caviar, one of the world’s most expensive delicacies.

At the same time, USDA and the Department of Commerce are spending more than $1.3 million to help PepsiCo Inc., the world’s largest snack food maker, build a Greek yogurt factory in New York.

As members of Congress complain about defense cuts, Congress split a new line of Navy littoral (near shore) ships between two completely different designs, needlessly increasing costs by $740 million while undermining the Navy’s capabilities.

The biggest waste of taxpayer dollars of all, however, was Congress itself, which I listed as the #1 waste of taxpayer dollars this year. With 23 million Americans unemployed and millions of others struggling to live within a budget, the Senate didn’t even bother to pass a budget for the third straight year.

Meanwhile, Washington spent much of the year talking instead of acting to avert a debt crisis and another downgrade. While members of Congress refused to back specific reforms and cuts, they were, however, very specific about what to fund. Robotic squirrels, Watermelon Queen Tours, climate change musicals, Moroccan pottery classes and pet shampoo products all received federal funding courtesy of future generations and potential foreign adversaries who are mocking us for our recklessness.

Wasteful spending matters because history has not been kind to great powers that lived beyond their means while wallowing in gratuitous excess. In Roman times, rulers used what was called “bread and circuses” — literally cheap food and entertainment — to pacify the populace in troubled times. Today, we make food stamps eligible at Starbucks and offer tax breaks for the NFL, NHL and the PGA (but not MLB). And instead of reforming Medicare for today’s seniors and near-retirees, we spend $1.2 million to see if encouraging them to play World of Warcraft, an online video game, will help them improve their cognitive function.

The purpose of detailing this waste isn’t just to remind the American people of what they already know — that Washington is doing less with more while they are doing more with less. The point is to remind taxpayers that they don’t have to accept the status quo. Every American has an opportunity to end spending behaviors in Washington that have become not just a punch line but the source of what Adm. Mike Mullen calls the greatest threat to our national security: our unsustainable $16 trillion national debt.

As I argue in “Wastebook,” each of the 100 entries highlighted in report is a direct result of Washington politicians who are preoccupied with running for re-election rather than running the country, which is what they were elected to do in the first place.

Some politicians and pundits try to rationalize excessive borrowing and spending as necessary until the economy gets back on track. But the fragile state of our economy is precisely why Washington must be more careful how tax dollars are spent. To do this Washington must set priorities, just like every family. The problem is Washington priorities are upside down. Important programs go bankrupt while outdated and outlandish projects continue to be funded.

The fact is advanced countries and economies like ours don’t stay advanced when we tolerate such silly spending decisions. Still, I believe We the People can cheat history and force Washington to make the hard decisions today that can give you and your children a brighter future tomorrow.

Sen. Tom Coburn is an Oklahoma Republican.

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