If you live anywhere but Washington, D.C., you probably believe that the federal government spends too much. Since 2008 a wave of bail-outs and pork barrel “stimulus” outlays pushed the budget to more than $3.6 trillion. Federal red ink exceeded $1 trillion four years in a row. Although the deficit dipped in 2013, the Congressional Budget Office warns that it will soon begin marching back up.
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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.
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.
Last summer the Republican-controlled House of Representatives was searching for cuts to replace supposedly savage spending reductions under the sequester. A seemingly obvious boondoggle came up for a vote, the cartoon squirrel “Super Twiggy.”
Explained the Washington Post: “The squirrel starred in Web videos in Spain, touting the health benefits of California-grown walnuts. U.S. taxpayers had paid more than $3 million for Spanish walnut promotions, as part of a $200 million-per-year Agriculture Department program that promotes U.S. farm goods overseas.” Although the “Market Access Program” was sold as economic development, farmers should pay their own advertising.
One of the leaders in the attack was Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Ca.), who argued that “The Republican majority was supposed to end this kind of nonsense, not perpetuate it.” Alas, 322 members voted to keep the cash flowing. Only 98 legislators voted for lower spending. An astonishing 142 GOP members joined 180 Democrats in voting to protect Twiggy.
There’s also the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation, which holds a science contest for middle school students. President Barack Obama as well as the House Republicans proposed killing this expenditure. However, noted Senate porker Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican, kept the $450,000 institution alive.
Even more unseemly is the bipartisan fraud endemic to the budget process. Gimmicks are constant. For instance, legislators approved nearly $40 billion in reductions in 2011. “But upon close inspection, many of those cuts were only-in-Washington illusions, paper money that was unlikely ever to be spent,” observed the Post. The supposed reductions “included $6 billion for a census that wasn’t necessary, $280 million for a tunnel that was already canceled and $375,000 for a road that didn’t exist (the money had been allotted to a fictional road because of a typo).” Unfortunately, the $220 trillion in unfunded liabilities are not just a typo.
There are many, many wasteful federal outlays. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Ok.) has issued a second “Wastebook” which contains 100 of the dumbest uses of taxpayers’ money. Explained the Senator: “Confronted with self-imposed budget cuts necessary to trim years of trillion dollar shortfalls, Washington protested that it could not live within its means. It attempted to take hostage the symbols of America to exact ransom from taxpayers. Public tours of the White House were canceled and Medicare payments for seniors’ health care were cut. 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.”
That’s chump change compared to the roughly half billion dollars the Department of Agriculture lost helping people obtain “safe and sanitary dwellings.” The department provided more than 100 loans worth $500,000 or more for homes in Hawaii. The $50 million National Technical Information Service collects business-related information, yet most of its materials are available online.
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 government spends $171.5 million annually to enrich a small number of well-heeled sugar producers, while driving up costs for consumers. The National Endowment for the Arts used $10,000 to underwrite the PowerUP Project, which featured choreographed (utility) pole dancing. Virginia’s Arlington County, a D.C. suburb, spent $904,000 in federal money on a “SuperStop” bus stop, with computer wifi but little protection from the elements. The county asked Washington for money to build another 23 such structures.
The NEH and NEA devoted $825,000 to study superhero comics. The Denali Commission received $10.7 million to promote rural development in Alaska even though Inspector General Mike Marsh argued for closing the body. The Agriculture Department spent about $50 million to aid Christmas tree growers, producers of ornamental trees, plum and maple sugar sellers, pecan and pear growers, and wine makers. The Department dropped $415,000 in China alone to encourage the taste for California wines.
HUD 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. NASA spent $3 million to search for signs of intelligent life on Capitol Hill, studying how Congress works. So far the Department of Transportation has poured $50 million into a Maryland parking garage (and “transit center”), begun in 1997 but stalled by safety issues. The department has dropped $8 million in an as yet unfinished South Carolina transportation “research center,” first proposed in 1998.
HUD used $65 million in emergency funds approved after Hurricane Sandy to purchase tourism ads for New Jersey and New York. The Federal Aviation Administration spent $3.5 million on solar panels for the Manchester-Boston Airport, many of which have to be covered because the glare impedes air traffic controllers. The State Department devoted $630,000 to generate additional Facebook “Likes.” NASA allocated nearly $400,000 to create the cartoon superhero “Green Ninja,” dedicated to fighting climate change.
Congress ordered the Air Force to spend an additional $432 million on C-27J combat aircraft which failed to meet performance standards. Washington used $82.5 million to give Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles to police departments across America. The Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security together devoted $321 million to duplicative and overlapping Information Technology systems. Government-wide Uncle Sam drops at least $1.5 billion to maintain empty buildings. Even as DOD is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, the department has been finishing the never-to-be-used $34 million Camp Leatherneck Headquarters Facility. Although public scorn killed the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, the state spent nearly $3 million in federal funds to buy properties for the bridge right-of-way.
The Agriculture Department gave an Oklahoma winery $200,000 to purchase new equipment. An Alaska Brewery collected $450,000 to add a new boiler. Agriculture also gave $100,000 to a North Carolina vodka producer. Congress devoted $350,000 to the Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park (in New Jersey) which the National Park Service said should not be a federal park. Health and Human Services spent nearly $200,000 on a Hollywood party. The Post Office paid futurist Faith Popcorn to imagine its future. The Institute of Museum and Library Services gave a New York museum $150,000 to create an exhibit on play. A Colorado museum received more than $40,000 for its toy collection.
Agriculture spent $15,000 on a study of urine as a fertilizer. NASA devoted nearly a quarter of a million dollars to study earthbound red crabs. Poor quality production cost the Treasury Department $4 million in producing the new “NextGen” $100 bill. Paterson, New Jersey used $141,886 in HUD funds to fix-up a vacant New Jersey home worth just $171,000—after a $260,000 investment by the city. The FAA spent more than $3 million on Minnesota’s St. Cloud Regional Airport which has just one bi-weekly commercial service. The National Science Foundation used $150,000 to create a Web-based Zombie game to teach math.
The FBI devoted $1.5 million to promote the agency on TV and the big screen. The Agriculture Department is spending $19.5 million to help beef and dairy cattle deal with climate change. The NEA gave $10,000 for a “Moosical” featuring a moose character for children. The National Science Foundation sent $2.9 million to Indianapolis to create sites “where arts and science will be used to educate the public about Indianapolis’s water system.” HUD used $158,500 to move one historical house in New Orleans, which ended up as rubble. Almost $17 million went from the Agriculture Department to develop new products, such as a Bloody Mary mix.
The Veterans Department is spending $2 million to turn a Civil War-era mill into office space. The NSF dropped $1.75 million to turn a best-selling book on the politics of food into a PBS documentary. In 2013 Uncle Sam devoted almost $300,000 to acquire portraits departing officials. Agriculture has devoted $25,000 to studying coffee drying. More than a half million dollars went from Transportation to Rossville, Kansas to improve its downtown. NSF spent nearly $400,000 to study duck reproduction in the hopes of better understanding human relationships. The Department of Justice used $2 million to maintain an empty former state prison purchased to bail-out Illinois.
Agriculture devoted more than $400,000 to study how to turn methane discharged by cows into fuel. The Interior Department spends $76 million annually to round up wild horses, leaving more natural vegetation, which in turn inflates the wild horse population. The Food and Drug Administration used $180,000 to monitor social media comments about the agency. NEH gave a college professor nearly $300,000 to create a computer game to bring Civil War researchers online. The agency gave $150,000 for a New York puppet festival. The Commerce Department provided Las Vegas with $800,000 to think about economic development. The Small Business Administration devoted $80,000 to study whether Congress should increase consumer taxes. In an attempt to go “green,” the federal government dropped an extra $200 million to renovate just one federal building in Minnesota.
NSF paid Tea Party critics $400,000 to study the Tea Party. The National Park Service devoted more than $80,000 to preserve Route 66. The Commerce Department spent $368,000 to refurbish the manufacturing plant for a golf cart maker. 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 bring the budget into balance, let alone put federal finances into order.
The dirty secret of budget-cutting, which the public doesn’t realize and policymakers won’t admit, is that more than four-fifths of federal money goes to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the military, and interest. In short, the fundamental budget problem is bad policy, not stupid waste.
Federal waste is pervasive. Congress should start by killing the Coburn 100. But 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.