A taxpayer dollar is a terrible thing to waste. So the federal government has come up with lots of ways to spend your tax revenue – including teaching a mountain lion to walk on a treadmill and helping Hillary Rodham Clinton promote a book that was already getting lots of publicity.
Oh, wait, do you think some of the government's $3.5 trillion in spending actually wasn't needed? Maybe even that treadmill or book tour?
In a city where politicians often seem too preoccupied to sweat the details, Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma is your ally. He has stepped in with his annual federal “Wastebook,” whose latest installment came out Wednesday.
Not everyone will agree on the definition of waste versus virtuous efforts, of course. But the project can be a valuable reminder that the government spends an awful lot of money each year with relatively little public review.
Typically, news coverage of fiscal policy tosses around numbers in the round billions or even trillions. (Case in point: Federal tax revenue just hit a record $3 trillion in the fiscal year just finished.) So the act of examining the way smaller amounts are spent can spark needed debate about the wise and ethical use of taxpayer dollars.
In the past, some activities called out by Senator Coburn have been ended by embarrassed agencies.
Here are nine headlines from his report, which is his final one since he’s retiring come January:
‘Paid vacations for bureaucrats gone wild’
The report itemizes $19 million spent when federal employees engaged in bad behavior on the job but ended up still getting paid instead of fired.
“Rather than disciplining employees who are underperforming or even engaging in criminal mischief, federal bureaucrats place troublesome employees on ‘administrative leave,’ where they continue to get paid but are essentially relieved of their duties including having to report to work or do work,” the report says.
The departments of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security were top spenders in this arena. Coburn concedes that sometimes administrative leave may be appropriate while a situation is being reviewed, but argues the practice is being overused.
‘Swedish massages for rascally rabbits’
A branch of the National Institutes of Health provided $387,000 for a two-year study of how massages (done by a machine in a “Swedish” style) affect the recovery of rabbits from exercise. “If the researchers were seeking to learn how to identify the most optimal application of massage therapy to treat human muscle aches and injuries, then perhaps they should have observed human subjects,” the Wastebook comments.
‘Army creates free first-person shooter [game that] the intelligence community worries could train terrorists’
A free online game created by the US Army is designed to attract new recruits – and Coburn allows that it may have helped to do that since its launch in 2002. But some in the intelligence community, his report notes, have said the game may also be used by jihadist groups to teach combat and battlefield skills.
The Army has spent more than $33 million on the game since its launch, including $414,000 in 2014 alone.
‘Taxpayers charged to promote Hillary Clinton’s $14 million book in Europe’
The Wastebook report documents $55,000 in expenses incurred by the State Department for helping former Secretary of State Clinton travel to Europe for events this year promoting her book, “Hard Choices.” The report says it’s not common for former cabinet secretaries to be granted such travel expenses, like lodging, and that Clinton reportedly got a $14 million advance from her publisher.
‘Mountain lions on a treadmill’
This $856,000 effort, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), was designed to help scientists understand big-cat behavior. It involved putting information-gathering collars on mountain lions in the wild, and also teaching captive animals to walk a treadmill to learn about aerobic patterns.
Is this wasteful? In Coburn’s reckoning, it makes the list of dubious projects. But he quotes scientists saying the research is “likely to greatly inform public knowledge and opinion of large mammal behavior and conservation.”
‘Scientists hope gambling monkeys unlock secrets of free will’
The NSF is also behind a $171,000 project that involved creating a computerized game for monkeys. Academic researchers used NSF funds to learn that, surprise, monkeys share humans’ unfounded belief in winning and losing streaks as they play for random rewards.
Coburn’s report quotes researchers surmising that the study could “provide nuance to our understanding of free will” or even “inform treatment for gambling addiction.” But he says taxpayers may go bananas.
‘Congress blocks closure of unneeded “sheep station” ’
Early this year, a congressional committee blocked the Department of Agriculture from closing the Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho. The department had said the $2 million-a-year research site was no longer needed.
“Everyone knows how much Congress loves pork, but perhaps less well-known is its affinity for mutton,” the Wastebook report commented.
‘Anti-terror grant buys state-of-the-art SWAT equipment for safest small town in America’
Using DHS funds from a state grant program, New York State sent $200,000 to two small cities (Ithaca and Tonawanda) for SWAT team equipment upgrades.
Ithaca, the Wastebook says, is ranked the “most secure” small town in America by Farmers Insurance Group, based on factors including crime, foreclosures, and risk of natural disasters.
‘Colorado orchestra targets youth with stoner symphony’
The Colorado Symphony Orchestra has won $15,000 in federal grant money and appears set to keep it despite hosting a marijuana-themed concert series. Colorado has gone further down the marijuana legalization road than most states, but it still isn’t legal to puff at a public concert there.
Still, the orchestra promoted “Classically Cannabis: The High Note Series,” with the idea that listeners might smoke pot just before walking in, according to the Wastebook report. For the orchestra, the context for the concerts was not just Colorado’s changed law but also the desire to attract new and younger audiences in an era of thinning attendance.
The National Endowment for the Arts has said the grant money won’t have to be returned.
For more detail and examples of government spending, see the full Wastebook report.