Published Friday, December 27, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:39 pm
2013 ‘wastebook’
World-Herald editorial: Waste totals real money

There’s some question whether the late Sen. Everett Dirksen actually coined the phrase so famously attributed to him: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

But there’s little doubt, Dirksen researchers say, that the Illinois lawmaker endorsed the sentiment. He once lamented of rising government spending, “We are becoming so accustomed to millions and billions of dollars that ‘thousands’ has almost passed out of the dictionary.”

Looking at today’s Senate, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn seems cast in the Dirksen mold. For several years, he has published a “Wastebook” to call attention to the many ways government squanders taxpayer dollars.

Some of this year’s examples are viewed through a political lens, of course, including his excoriating of the Affordable Care Act and its botched rollout as “perhaps the biggest marketing flop since Coca-Cola introduced the world to ‘New Coke’ in 1985.” And some are judgment calls, such as Coburn’s assertion that the Pentagon is wasting money by leaving equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than trying to bring it all home.

But in this year’s report, Coburn again finds so many items large and small that taxpayers are left to shake their heads. A few of his examples:

>> The State Department spent $630,000 to get “likes” and fans for its Facebook and Twitter accounts. And during hearings on the terrorist attack at the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, the department blamed tight security budgets, Coburn notes, but still found $704,198 for gardening and landscaping at the NATO ambassador’s 28-acre home in Brussels.

>> Nearly $1 million has been spent to study “the fascinating, often contradictory origins and influences of popular romance as told in novels, films, comics, advice books, songs, and Internet fan fiction.”

>> A $150,000 grant went to a company in North Carolina to develop a math learning game based on the “zombie apocalypse.”

>> The Army National Guard spent $10 million on Superman movie tie-ins “while plans were being made to cut the strength of the Guard by 8,000 soldiers, the real supermen and (-)women who fight for truth, justice and the American way.”

>> An Agriculture Department program, designed to assist those low- and moderate-income people in rural areas with housing, subsidized loans of $500,000 or more for beachfront homes in Hawaii.

>> Through the tax code, “Uncle Sam is assisting the operation of the legal brothels in Nevada,” allowing them to qualify for tax deductions.

>> The National Technical Information Service, a $50 million item, charges “other offices and taxpayers to provide government reports that are largely available free of charge” via the Internet.

>> Although 97 percent of its staff was furloughed in the federal shutdown, NASA “is paying 20 individuals $18,000 each to literally do nothing more than lie around for a couple months.” These “pillownauts” are taking part in a study on what human bodies might go through in weightlessness.

>> The Army spent almost $300 million to develop a “mega-blimp” for battlefield surveillance, only to cancel the project after three years. It flew once, for 90 minutes over New Jersey, and was sold back to the contractor for $301,000.

The list goes on. And on. The 2013 Wastebook runs to 175 pages. All of this while federal agencies howled about across-the-board spending cuts from the budget sequester.

“When it comes to spending your money, those in Washington tend to see no waste, speak no waste, and cut no waste,” Coburn said.

Some items are just plain goofy and some amounts are relatively small, but the senator does taxpayers a service by raising serious issues.

Congress and the administration need to set national priorities. It’s hard to see how a study of romance novels fits that criteria.

Congress and the administration should be vigilant watchdogs of taxpayers’ money. They weren’t watching when the State Department was buying Facebook likes.

A billion here, a billion there. For taxpayers, it’s real money.

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