We live in an age of mad austerity. Bits of debris crumble portentously off our bridges thanks to dried-up infrastructure funding. Scientists are forever one paycheck away from shutting down their research. What’s left of the civil service has been cut to ribbons by the late sequester. The recent government shutdown nearly annihilated the economy until (in the nick of time!) Republicans finally surrendered.
That’s America right now if you’re on the neo-Keynesian left. To its partisans, the government isn’t a leviathan, but a delicate Jenga tower—pluck a single dollar and you risk toppling everything. This is how a spending cut as piddling as the sequester becomes a nightmare scenario, or why any attempt to balance the budget is regularly denounced as right-wing extremism.
The problem is that every time the public gets a glimpse at what government is actually spending money on—real examples as opposed to abstract baseline gimmicks—it becomes clear that not only is there waste, but scarcely believable, deeply ludicrous, dyspepsia-inducing waste. There was Solyndra, the $535 million solar company that quickly went under. There was the bubbly GSA conference in Las Vegas, which blossomed into an investigation of 76 other conferences worth $6.7 million. There was the man who spent his life role-playing as a baby while enrolled on Social Security disability insurance.
Now Senator Tom Coburn, whose office has long been a scourge of reckless spending, is releasing his latest Wastebook, which documents 100 examples, totaling nearly $30 billion, of egregious government waste. “Had just these 100 been eliminated,” the report notes, “the sequester amount would have been reduced nearly a third without any noticeable disruption.” Coburn’s line items should be low-hanging fruit for shears-wielding appropriators. Among the worst examples:
- In the Middle East, the military has destroyed more than 170 million pounds of equipment, worth $7 billion, rather than selling it or sending it home. This has resulted in a booming scrap market that benefits Afghanistan rather than America.
- NASA is conducting “bed-rest research” in which test subjects are literally paid to lie around and do nothing all day, at a cost of $360,000 to taxpayers. This inquest into inertia is supposed to shed light on the effects of weightlessness on the human body, which is needed for any manned space program. NASA doesn’t currently have a manned space program.
- Arlington County, Virginia is littered with federal projects, including a single bus stop that cost taxpayers $1 million. To be fair, this is no concrete slab; it has heated benches and sidewalks, wireless Internet, and can fit a whopping 15 people. As one tourist noted, “Where we’re from, they built a whole highway rest stop for $1.5 million.”
The Wastebook also calls out absurd tax loopholes, including $17.5 million in deductions for brothels in Nevada, and a $295 million tax refund for Facebook despite the fact that the social media giant pays no income taxes. It’s bipartisanship of a fashion, and its author, Coburn, has always been willing to work with Democrats to make government more efficient. One of his reports last year, called “The Department of Everything,” took a close look at the Pentagon budget and found everything from military microbreweries to a Star Trek workshop—total savings: $68 billion.
Coburn told me somewhat matter-of-factly during an interview last month: “The average American, if they knew what I knew, they’d throw us all out. There’d be a revolution in this country.” The public’s attitude on federal spending is often said to be more contradictory than that: We support less of it in the abstract, then chafe when actual cuts are proposed. But are there even 10 people who would be offended if the government built regular bus stops instead of million-dollar ones? Or stopped giving grants to study the role of romance in popular culture (yes, those actually exist)? Not everything before Congress is a “tough decision.” Cutting $125,000 for NASA’s three-dimensional pizza printer (I kid you not) should be easy.
With sequestration having been repealed, congressional appropriators are gearing up to allot next year’s spending. As Roll Call observes, “Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle decried the ‘meat ax’ approach of the sequester, but it’s much easier to let bean counters at the Office of Management and Budget make across-the-board cuts than to actually do the work of surgeons with scalpels.” If lawmakers are looking for easy incisions, they should start with the items in Coburn’s report.
The fat is there. But will Congress actually cut it? Can we trust our elected representatives to do the job that the sequester was doing automatically and reduce spending?
It remains to be seen. Perhaps the government could provide some funding to study the question.