- The Washington Times - Monday, November 30, 2015

The dating habits of America’s seniors might be of interest to online matchmakers and certain pharmaceutical companies, but Sen. James Lankford wants to know why the federal government felt it needed to get involved — to the tune of nearly $375,000 — to conduct its own study.

That is one of 100 items on Mr. Lankford’s “Federal Fumbles,” a report being released Monday that compiles some of the questionable, bogus and ridiculous projects on which the federal government has chosen to spend taxpayers’ money.

It’s a follow-up to the legacy of the man Mr. Lankford replaced, former Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who during his 10 years in the Senate earned a reputation as Congress’ top waste-watcher, and punctuated his crusade with his annual Wastebook compendium of bum spending.

As he left office last year, Mr. Coburn challenged his colleagues to pick up the torch, and a handful of them have done just that.

In addition to Mr. Lankford, Sens. Jeff Flake, John McCain, Rand Paul and Daniel Coats, as well as Rep. Steve Russell, are each poking through lists of spending, trying to call attention to projects they say are of questionable value when it means taking more money from taxpayers to keep them going.

“With a massive $19 trillion federal debt and a half-trillion-dollar deficit, we must tackle our federal budget and root out inefficiencies, duplication and wasteful spending wherever they exist,” Mr. Lankford said. “I’m glad that multiple people are highlighting examples of bad government. Every member of the Senate and the House should dig in and look for areas of waste, especially in their particular committees.”

Mr. Lankford’s project is based on a football theme, and he declares each bad spending project a fumble. He classifies them by team — so in the case of the senior-dating project, the blame goes to the National Science Foundation — and offers a suggestion for how to recover the ball.

He said the NSF, which was also a frequent target for Mr. Coburn, needs to do a better job of proving its research has practical benefits for policymakers.

Mr. Lankford takes aim at some big-ticket items too, including double payments from some of the country’s entitlement programs that total billions of dollars over the course of a decade.

Federal agencies often objected at being included in Wastebook, saying Mr. Coburn boiled complex decision-making down to soundbite-level write-ups that made them look bad.

But that’s the idea, says Mr. Flake, who established himself as a top pork-barrel spending opponent in the House before winning election to the Senate in 2012.

“It’s the deterrent value of what the Wastebook represents,” the Arizona Republican said. “These agencies, before they spend money, they’ve got to realize they’re going to be ridiculed.”

Mr. Flake’s own waste project is called PorkChops, where he tries to pick out an item a week deserving of special scrutiny. And he released a report this summer dubbed “Jurassic Pork,” which detailed active earmarks still left inside old spending bills even though the practice of earmarking died in 2011.

Mr. Flake praised Mr. Coburn for helping blaze a trail, and said the more people who join in, the more pressure there will be on federal agencies to weed the projects out themselves.

And Wastebook-style reports got real results.

The Washington Times reported last year on a State Department project to buy a human-size foosball setup, which was supposed to be used as a team-building activity. But after Mr. Coburn’s investigators spotted the project and called the department, it canceled the order.

That, however, pales in comparison to some of the high-profile items Mr. Coburn has taken down, including the National Football League’s use of a special tax break for nonprofit organizations. After being listed in Wastebook, the NFL voluntarily announced it would stop claiming the tax break — even though Congress didn’t appear likely to shut it down.

“Oversight works when Washington won’t,” Mr. Coburn said.

Mr. Coburn made a point of picking projects from his own state of Oklahoma, saying it was one way to prove he was serious about targeting all waste, even that which might benefit his constituents. One of last year’s projects was a $500,000 Agriculture Department grant to foster butterfly farming on an Indian reservation in his state.

It’s probably no coincidence that former Coburn staffers now work for Mr. Flake, Mr. Lankford, Mr. McCain, Mr. Paul and Mr. Russell, and they exchange ideas on a regular basis.

Mr. McCain and Mr. Flake earlier this year released a report on sports leagues charging the military for costs associated with some of the honors bestowed on troops at games.

As the lawmakers were calling around, the sports leagues began to take steps to clean up their act — with the NFL promising its own investigation into whether its teams were engaging in what the senators called “paid patriotism.”

Mr. Paul, meanwhile, releases his own weekly “Waste Report” where he’s dinged everything from State Department funding for a cricket league in Afghanistan to a $15,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to sponsor a Miami conference on hair restoration. Mr. Paul said the hair loss treatment industry rakes in billions of dollars a year, and wondered why taxpayers had to shell out for anything.

Mr. Coburn said he was thrilled to see so many lawmakers taking up his challenge.

“This isn’t a competition, it is a revolution. With more eyes watching how taxpayer money is being spent, it is going to be a lot more difficult to waste it,” he said.

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

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