Washington Big Spenders: Wasteful as Essential

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If you live anywhere but Washington, D.C., you probably believe that the federal government spends too much.  Today the national debt is more than $17 trillion.  CBO figured that existing budget plans would add between $6.3 trillion and $8.8 trillion in red ink over the coming decade. 

Social Security and Medicare alone account for more than $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities, promised benefits for which no revenues are set.  Counting a multitude of other debts and obligations, American taxpayers are on the hook for more than $220 trillion in unfunded liabilities.

As I point out in my new Forbes online column:

However, denizens of Washington see things very differently.  Policymakers recently approved a bipartisan budget that increased discretionary spending, theoretically the easiest outlay to control, over the next two years.  Legislators ignored so-called entitlement outlays, which threaten to consume the entire federal budget.

It really doesn’t matter which party is in charge in Washington.  Most Republicans have little desire to cut federal outlays.  One man’s waste is another man’s vote-winning special interest hand-out.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Ok.) has issued a second “Wastebook” which contains 100 of the dumbest uses of taxpayers’ money.  Explained the Senator:  “While the president and his cabinet issued dire warnings about the cataclysmic impacts of sequestration, taxpayers were not alerted to all of the waste being spared from the budget axe.”

For instance, the National Endowment for the Humanities devoted almost $1 million to the Popular Romance Project to “explore the fascinating, often contradictory origins and influences of popular romance as told in novels, films, comics, advice books, songs, and internet fan fiction, taking a global perspective—while looking back across time as far as the ancient Greeks.”  The National Science Foundation spent a quarter of a million dollars to study “attitudes toward the Senate filibuster among the American public.”

The Army spent nearly $300 million on a blimp for surveillance in Afghanistan—only to drop the project after its inaugural U.S. flight, selling the airship back to its maker for $301,000.  The International Trade Association devoted nearly $300,000 to send Indi Rock music executives on a tour to Brazil.  

The National Institutes for Health dropped $335,525 on a study which determined that “marriages that were the happiest were the ones in which the wives were able to calm down quickly during marital conflict.”  The $1.9 million Senate Office of Education and Training provides classes for staffers on such subjects as sleeping well and making small talk.  The National Endowment for the Arts used $10,000 to underwrite the PowerUP Project, which featured choreographed (utility) pole dancing. 

Housing and Urban Development used $1.2 million to create an apartment designed for the deaf in Tempe, Arizona, only to then decide that three-quarters of the residences should be occupied by people with normal hearing.  The Agriculture Department gave an Oklahoma winery $200,000 to purchase new equipment. 

The Institute of Museum and Library Services gave a New York museum $150,000 to create an exhibit on play.  NSF spent $2.9 million to create sites “where arts and science will be used to educate the public about Indianapolis’s water system.”

The Commerce Department provided Las Vegas with $800,000 to think about economic development.  The U.S. Marshals Service dropped nearly $800,000 on promotional “swag,” including Christmas ornaments.

Sen. Coburn’s 100 programs cost about $30 billion total.  While that’s a lot of money for most anyone except Bill Gates, it is small change for the federal government, less than 1/700th Uncle Sam’s current unfunded liabilities.  Even eliminating the many wasteful projects that litter the federal bureaucracy would not balance the budget.

But Congress should start by killing the Coburn 100.  Americans then need to have an adult conversation about the budget.  Too many people expect to live at someone else’s expense through Washington.  Which is why the nation faces financial ruin.