- The Washington Times - Monday, November 28, 2016

If Shakespeare is performed without the bard’s immortal words, is it really Shakespeare?

The National Endowment for the Arts has committed $10,000 of taxpayers’ money to test that question — one of dozens of projects to make the wasteful spending list of Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican who’s continuing the tradition of former Sen. Tom Coburn’s annual Wastebook.

The National Science Foundation again comes in for an outsized share of criticism for its research spending, including a $1.8 million grant to a university that spent some of the money on embroidered Snuggies, the robe-style blankets that are a staple of As-Seen-On-TV trinket advertising.

NSF officials also paid $315,000 to study whether Americans see the court system as fair, Mr. Lankford said in his second annual “Federal Fumbles” report.

“Our current spending habits are unsustainable and irresponsible,” Mr. Lankford said in releasing the report, which documented more than 100 areas where he said the federal government botched its spending decisions.

The silent Shakespeare grant Mr. Lankford highlighted is actually a repeat-performance. The senator’s first report in 2015 also cited the NEA for funding the Synetic Theater’s attempt to convert verbal witticisms into expressive gestures. This year’s production was “Twelfth Night.”

Mr. Lankford said the theater company may be doing good work, but it should stand on its own, not with taxpayer money.

He said Congress and the executive branch need to spend more time scouring spending. He said one step toward that would be to enact the Grant Reform and New Transparency (GRANT) Act, which would give the public more information about the grant process, which accounted for some $617 billion in federal spending in 2015.

Mr. Lankford’s compilation of bogus spending ranged from questionable spending to agency mismanagement to broader policy decisions that, the senator said, showed just how far off track the government has gone.

One of those is the administration’s decision to ship Iran some $1.7 billion in payments tied to the Islamic Republic’s release of American hostages. Also facing scrutiny was the Obama administration’s call to spend $750 million to boost Central America, as a way of trying to stop the surge of illegal immigrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Mr. Lankford’s spending review is one of several that have been or will be released before the end of the year. They are all in the vein of Mr. Coburn’s Wastebook, which pioneered the practice of taking a sideways glance at federal spending as a whole, picking out some of the weirder decisions bureaucrats made.

The National Institutes of Health, the NEA and the NSF, as agencies that regularly dole out grant money, are frequent targets — with the NSF coming under particular fire.

In one grant the NSF sent some $200,000 to academics to study foods that were part of the Tanzanian diet in the 1500s. Another NSF project, totaling more than $400,000 so far, is studying the effects of Obamacare on the job market.

Mr. Lankford said that was a waste because the Congressional Budget Office already does that research — and regularly publishes its predictions.

The NSF was unbowed by the criticism.

“NSF supports cutting-edge research projects — many of which serve as bellwethers for solutions to the myriad complex issues facing society,” the agency said in a statement. “NSF programs also traditionally integrate research and education, speeding innovation excellence through hands-on learning to train our next generation of researchers and innovators.”

The foundation said the 12,000 or so grants it makes each year are “reviewed by science and engineering experts” who know what research is needed in each field of study. NSF officials say 50,000 experts end up serving on review panels each year.

The NSF claims the internet, web browsers, Doppler radar, DNA fingerprinting and bar codes as important developments the agency says its research helped along.

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

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