Dr. Tom Coburn’s Legacy

By Sean Kennedy

WasteWatcher, November 2015

From 2008 until he retired from the Senate in January 2015, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) provided an invaluable resource for taxpayers by publishing compilations of the worst wasteful spending.  Between 2011 and 2014, the annual publication was called “The Wastebook.”  The October 2014 version of this report revealed an $856,000 grant to train mountain lions to walk on treadmills, $414,000 spent on an Army video game designed for recruitment purposes that was already more than $25 million over budget, and $46,000 for a snowmobile competition in Michigan.

Several members of Congress are hoping to continue Sen. Coburn’s work by releasing their own reports.  Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who succeeded Sen. Coburn as Oklahoma’s junior senator, appears to be the closest to mirroring The Wastebook.  On November 13, Sen. Lankford released his second “teaser” video for the release of his new report, “Federal Fumbles: 100 ways the government dropped the ball,” which is due out on November 30, 2015.  The senator’s press release noted that the report will include examples of wasteful spending and burdensome regulations along with a solution to each identified problem.  The video provided information about a National Science Foundation grant “that researches the dating habits of single adults over the age of 60.”  The prior preview video cited spending “for Silent Shakespeare plays.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been focused on wasteful spending at the Department of Defense with his series of America’s Most Wasted reports.  His in October 2015 report revealed the procurement process for the purchase of a new handgun by the Army has taken 10 years and produced nothing but hundreds of pages of paperwork.  The report cited small arms experts who “estimated that just the paperwork and unnecessary requirements could easily add $50 or more to the cost of each handgun” at a total cost of $15 million.  And the process is so complex and convoluted that the Army may not field a new handgun at all.

One of the most glaring problems in the requirements for the new handgun is the failure to include the caliber of the cartridge and the type of bullet the new gun should have.  While this critically important piece of the new gun is missing, there are specific requirements for much lower priority elements such as the gun’s color and bore brush, along with the size of the margin (“1”) on the “paper used for correspondence.”  Allowing critical elements to be decided by the industry while micro-managing lesser priorities will likely result in many smaller top handgun makers abstaining from placing bids.  According to the McCain report, that will increase the likelihood of not procuring the “best handgun that commercial industry has to offer.”

Other members have also gotten in on the action, including Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), whose office releases “Pork Chops” every month.  The October 2015 issue highlighted a $60,000 expenditure by the National Endowment for the Arts for the summer 2015 production of “Zombie:  The American.”  According to the report, this play portrays “…a dystopian future in which the President of the United States is faced with zombies in the basement of the White House.”

Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) has also been exposing and reporting on wasteful spending through The Waste Report.  The version released on November 9, 2015 detailed a $175 million overpayment by Medicare to study sleep apnea.  This accounts for more than 50 percent of the $300 million Medicare spends annual to study the disorder.

Rep. Steve Russell’s (R-Okla.) effort is labeled Waste Watch.  The most recent release, published in October 2015, included the disclosure of a $29,403 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to “understand and describe toxic rhetoric in online spaces, with an emphasis on large-scale multiplayer computer games.”  Researchers monitored online videogames for “hateful, toxic and harassing speech,” and recommended “best practices for studying and moderating toxicity.”

Finally, House Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill Flores (R-Texas) is planning to release a series of videos on wasteful spending entitled “Porkies.

In addition the welcome and extensive efforts to take up his Sen. Coburn’s mantel, additional sources for wasteful projects contained in the federal budget can be found in the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) High Risk List report, released biennially, as well as other GAO reports; the Office of Management and Budget’s annual Cuts, Consolidations, and Savings; reports from agency inspectors general; and oversight hearings on Capitol Hill.  Finally, Citizens Against Government Waste’s 2015 Prime Cuts Summary, which is one of many non-governmental sources of information on wasteful spending, provides taxpayers and legislators with 601 recommendations that would save $639 billion in the first year and $1.4 trillion over five years. 

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