Watch­dog Coburn is­sues fi­nal Waste­book

Cham­pion of the U.S. tax­payer to re­tire at year’s end

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DI­NAN

This year’s Waste­book does not show the $5,210 that the State Depart­ment tried to spend on a blowup, hu­man-size foos­ball field for an em­bassy in Belize. But the fact that the project isn’t in Sen. Tom Coburn’s an­nual re­port on ridicu­lous spend­ing choices is prob­a­bly one of the big­gest vic­to­ries of the re­port, be­cause it means the State Depart­ment can­celed the project after the se­na­tor’s staffers asked about it.

It’s the other 100 projects in the re­port — in­clud­ing sub­si­dies for pro­fes­sional sports sta­di­ums and grants to study gambling mon­keys — that the Ok­la­homa Repub­li­can said should have tax­pay­ers steam­ing.

Plenty of law­mak­ers talk about root­ing out gov­ern­ment waste, but Mr. Coburn makes a cause of it. He de­ploys staffers to pe­ruse news­pa­pers and dig through gov­ern­ment web­sites to spot the tens of bil­lions of dol­lars in pork, boon­dog­gles and ex­trav­a­gance that have con­trib­uted to the gov­ern­ment’s tril­lions of dol­lars of debt.

Mr. Coburn is re­tir­ing at the end of this year after a decade in the Se­nate, mean­ing the 239-page, metic­u­lously foot­noted vol­ume he is re­leas­ing Wed­nes­day will be his fi­nal Waste­book as se­na­tor. His de­par­ture is rais­ing ques­tions about who, if any­one, will pick up his over­sight banner.

“To bu­reau­crats and politi­cians, none of this is waste, which is why the only way to stop waste­ful Wash­ing­ton spend­ing is by shin­ing a light on it when­ever and wher­ever it oc­curs, even if it is in your own state — es­pe­cially when it is in your own state,” Mr. Coburn told The Wash­ing­ton Times. “That is why I think ev­ery mem­ber of Congress should is­sue their own ver­sion of Waste­book so we can de­bate and set our na­tional pri­or­i­ties ev­ery year.”

The Times was al­lowed to watch some of the decision-mak­ing be­hind this year’s re­port as the se­na­tor and his staff talked through the projects, de­bated the or­der of the 10 most waste­ful and drafted the re­port’s cover. This edi­tion is de­signed to mimic the sala­cious su­per­mar­ket tabloids in a com­men­tary on how ridicu­lous some of the projects have be­come.

Lead­ing this year’s edi­tion is $19 mil­lion in salaries that the gov­ern­ment paid to work­ers who were sus­pended from their jobs, usu­ally be­cause of mis­con­duct that would have re­sulted in out­right fir­ing at a pri­vate company. Other high­lights in­clude the $50,000 spent to study whether sea mon­keys’ swimming changes the flow of oceans, $450,000 that the Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment spent on high-end gym mem­ber­ships for staffers whose fed­eral health in­surance al­ready pays for gym ben­e­fits and the in­creas­ing num­ber of vet­er­ans who get dis­abil­ity pay­ments by claim­ing sleep ap­nea at a cost Mr. Coburn said could reach $1.2 bil­lion.

All told, Mr. Coburn iden­ti­fies $25 bil­lion in waste from the 100 projects.

But­ter­fly farms

Although ev­ery­one in his of­fice from in­terns on up con­trib­utes ideas, Mr. Coburn is the one driv­ing Waste­book. He spots items through­out the year and fires them off in emails col­lected by his leg­isla­tive di­rec­tor, Roland Foster.

By the time Waste­book rolls around, the au­thors have more than enough items. The se­na­tor is a tough critic, shoot­ing down write-ups when he thinks ex­penses could be jus­ti­fied or de­mand­ing de­tails for proof that the gov­ern­ment is truly prof­li­gate.

That was what Mr. Coburn was do­ing on a busy af­ter­noon in Septem­ber while other se­na­tors were rush­ing to fin­ish business. Se­nate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Ne­vada Demo­crat, was clos­ing up shop be­fore send­ing law­mak­ers home for two months of cam­paign­ing be­fore the midterm elec­tions.

Mr. Coburn had meet­ings stacked up and re­served time to speak on the Se­nate floor, but he was go­ing over the early write-ups of some of the Waste­book projects with Mr. Foster, staff at­tor­ney Pa­trick Bai­ley, and Keith Ash­down and Chris Barkley, who are the staff di­rec­tor and as­sis­tant staff di­rec­tor for Mr. Coburn on the Home­land Se­cu­rity and Gov­ern­men­tal Af­fairs Com­mit­tee.

The se­na­tor in­sists on high­light­ing projects from his home state of Ok­la­homa, fig­ur­ing it’s only fair. He en­coun­tered one on but­ter­fly farm­ing, a $500,000 Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment grant to a town on an In­dian reser­va­tion to help tribe mem­bers start rais­ing and sell­ing but­ter­flies.

The $500,000 is enough to pro­vide ev­ery mem­ber of the town a starter kit and still have more than $300,000 left over, Mr. Coburn cal­cu­lated. As of Au­gust, how­ever, just 50 of the 845 tribe mem­bers had signed up.

The tribe wasn’t con­vinced it wanted to do the project un­til it learned it could ob­tain fed­eral fund­ing — which is ex­actly why the money is not a good ex­pense, the Waste­book con­cludes.

“I can’t imag­ine 300 peo­ple are go­ing to be em­ployed rais­ing but­ter­flies in Ok­la­homa,” the se­na­tor tells his staffers in one meet­ing.

Not ev­ery project is a vic­tory. One left on the cut­ting floor this year in­volved Pen­tagon spon­sor­ship of a video game fes­ti­val. Mr. Foster spot­ted an ad­ver­tise­ment for the fes­ti­val on the sub­way and pur­sued the project, but in the end wasn’t able to get the De­fense Depart­ment to dis­close a cost fig­ure.

Agen­cies are in­creas­ingly balk­ing at co­op­er­at­ing with fis­cal watch­dogs like Mr. Coburn who be­lieve they have a right to know how the gov­ern­ment is spend­ing their money.

His of­fice now en­lists the Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice, with in-house re­search staff, to make some of in­quiries. Mr. Coburn also asks for help from the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice, the chief in­ves­tiga­tive arm of Congress.

This year, Mr. Coburn had the GAO in­ves­ti­gate the tens of mil­lions of dol­lars doled out to fed­eral em­ploy­ees on “paid ad­min­is­tra­tive leave” — mean­ing they col­lect salaries even as many are on sus­pen­sion for mis­con­duct.

“Waste­book is like a scav­enger hunt. It does not re­quire a law de­gree or even years of D.C. ex­pe­ri­ence, just some common sense and ded­i­ca­tion with a leader who takes his role as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of tax­pay­ers se­ri­ously,” Mr. Foster said. “If a 22-year-old in­tern can do this, why can’t a chair­man of a pow­er­ful com­mit­tee with a staff of dozens


“The only way to stop waste­ful Wash­ing­ton spend­ing is by shin­ing a light on it when­ever and wher­ever it oc­curs, even if it is in your own state,” says Sen. Tom Coburn, who is re­leas­ing his last Waste­book be­fore re­tir­ing.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.