- The Washington Times - Monday, October 15, 2012

The Senate’s top waste-watcher says the federal government is bloated with extra spending — including in the halls of Congress itself, where he says senators and staffers are collecting salaries while failing to do very much work.

Twenty senators haven’t had a single amendment considered on the chamber floor this year, and some of the most powerful committees have all but taken the year off, said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican.

The damning critique of his colleagues is part of Mr. Coburn’s “Wastebook 2012,” the latest installment in what has become an annual list of 100 curious federal spending decisions that Congress and federal agencies make each year. The book will be released Tuesday.

Making the 2012 list are a $1.5 million grant to the University of Utah to study building a better computer gaming joystick, $100,000 to send a three-member American comedy troupe on a tour of India, and part of a $325,000 grant used to build a robotic squirrel, all to test whether it could scare a real snake.

The National Institutes of Health spent $939,771 on a study to discover that a male fruit fly, given the choice between a young female and an older female fly, chose the younger.

Waterloo, Iowa, is spending $145,000 in federal taxpayers’ money to put a statue of Lou Henry Hoover, the wife of the 31st president, in a new roadside park at the site of the Hoovers’ former home.

At a time when Congress and President Obama are fighting over the looming automatic across-the-board spending cuts, which all sides say are too blunt, Mr. Coburn said the Wastebook, which singles out $18.9 billion in spending, shows there are plenty of projects that can be cut if both sides would use a scalpel instead.

“The problem in Washington is politicians are very specific about what we should fund but not specific about what we should cut. As a result, we are chasing robotic squirrels and countless other low-priority projects over a fiscal cliff,” the senator said.

The government ran a deficit of $1.1 trillion in fiscal year 2012, which concluded Sept. 30, and is projected to flirt with a fifth straight trillion-dollar deficit next year.

Cutting spending, though, has proved to be difficult. Congress and Mr. Obama agreed to some limits, both in a 2011 spending bill and last year’s debt deal, but have struggled to cull entire programs and projects.

That is one reason this year’s Wastebook — Mr. Coburn’s third — turns its eye on the Senate itself.

Mr. Coburn charts the Senate committees that have held the fewest hearings this year: The Rules and Administration Committee, with just two, and the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, with just four. The Small Business Committee passed only three bills this year — one of which authorized its own expenditures.

“All of the outrageous and wasteful contents of this report were made possible by either the action or lack of action of Congress, earning it the well-deserved but unwanted distinction as the biggest waste of taxpayer money in 2012,” he said in the report.

The previous two reports have been met with mixed reactions.

States whose projects were singled out complained that they were just following the rules Congress wrote for them — particularly on highway spending, which includes beautification and roadside parks.

Other projects have their defenders, such as some of the scientific research Mr. Coburn has questioned.

In this year’s report, he highlights the robotic squirrel, which researchers at San Diego State University and the University of California-Davis built using part of a $325,000 grant — all to test whether they could scare a real snake into thinking the squirrel was also real.

The researchers used the carcass of a squirrel built over a robot, and went so far as to store it with live squirrels to acquire the smell, and heat the squirrel’s tail so that snakes would pick up a heat signature.

The National Science Foundation, an independent government agency, has awarded the robot researchers $325,000 in an ongoing grant so far.

The researchers said they are trying to test theories that said some animals’ behavior — such as the squirrel wagging its tail — are trying to signal their predators. In the case of the squirrel, the belief is that the tail-wagging signals to a snake that it has lost the element of surprise and should back off.

The foundation did not respond to a message seeking comment Monday evening.

But Mr. Coburn’s report called the spending “a bit squirrelly.”

Mr. Coburn and the National Science Foundation have tangled before, when he tried to cut the foundation’s funding for political research at universities, arguing that political debates can survive without the government paying for research data.

This latest report singles out 10 projects that have received the foundation’s funding, including the study on male fruit flies’ age preferences in female partners.

The scientists found that male fruit flies prefer the smell of younger female fruit flies. But when the pheromones were washed off both young and old females, which were concealed by the dark, the male fruit fly couldn’t tell the difference. The scientists then took two older female flies and coated one with pheromones of a younger female, and discovered the male preferred that one.

The ongoing research has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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