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Dirty underbelly of federal spending documented in 'Wastebook'

David GrantThe Christian Science Monitor

Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma has issued his annual “Wastebook,” the 100 government expenditures that should not have been. “Until Congress has the guts to cut specific programs,” Senator Coburn said in a statement, “we will never get our debt under control.”

Here are the top four takeaways from the 2012 Wastebook.

1. Can Smokey Bear and the Alabama Watermelon Queen take a robot squirrel into their hot air balloon while lugging a sack of talking urinal cakes?

Coburn turns up a trove of government spending that, well, you just couldn’t make up if you tried.

Some of our favorites include $10,000 for talking urinal cakes in Michigan (to fight drunken driving), $142,000 for a Department of Transportation grant offering free bus rides to Super Bowl attendees in Indianapolis, $25,000 for the Alabama Watermelon Queen to tour the state to promote her prized crop, just under $50,000 for Smokey Bear hot-air balloon rides, and $325,000 for a robot squirrel designed to help test the relationship between squirrels and rattlesnakes. (Hint: antagonistic.)

And that’s in addition to the report’s wry commentary on ending penny production (saving $70 million per year to produce $35 million worth of pennies), a $350,000 National Science Foundation grant about golfers needing to “envision a bigger hole” to improve their putting, and $445,000 on a play about biodiversity and climate change that reviews deemed “boring” and “needed improvement.”

2. Are there serious policy issues in there alongside the Alabama Watermelon Queen?

Foremost of Coburn’s tough questions is this: Is Washington keeping its priorities in order?

With real and imminent needs in the American economy, every dollar spent wastefully is one that could have gone to a higher purpose.

“How many of our friends, families and neighbors could be fed with the nearly $1 million the government spent taste testing foods to be served on the planet Mars? How many nutritious school lunches could have been served with the $2 million in financial assistance provided to cupcake specialty shops?” the Wastebook asks.

This has direct policy implications within government programs, as the Wastebook’s criticism of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the former food stamp program, makes clear. Because SNAP does not require the purchase of healthy food – and regulations in some states allow for the purchase of alcohol or fast food – Coburn argues that well-meaning federal dollars aimed at helping poor families are being used in less-than-helpful ways.

If you’re permitting SNAP participants to buy Starbucks lattes or alcohol with their food assistance, the question goes, are you really solving the problem of hunger?

3. Can you fix the federal budget deficit by killing everything in the Wastebook? Not even close.

The federal government added more than $1 trillion to the national debt in the 2012 fiscal year ending Sept. 30. All 100 findings in Coburn’s report total just over $18 billion.

But that’s not the point, Coburn says. If you want to cut, you have to get specific about what things you’re going to excise from the federal books.

“The problem in Washington is politicians are very specific about what we should fund but not specific about what we should cut. As a result, we are chasing robotic squirrels and countless other low-priority projects over a fiscal cliff,” he said in a statement.

4. What’s the pick for most egregious waste of government money? Congress.

The top spot on Coburn’s list is Congress, all $132 million of it. Plummeting approval is the public’s response to an institution not only gridlocked at every turn but capable of producing odd spending priorities.

“Whether it was failing to hold oversight hearings, pass laws, cut unnecessary spending, or simply cast votes on amendments, the U.S. Congress let taxpayers down in 2012. In fact, many high school student councils have been more deliberative than the US Senate,” thunders the Wastebook. “All that follows in this report can be traced right back to what Congress has and has not done.

"Article 1, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution entrusts Congress with the responsibility to approve how money is spent out of the Treasury and to account for such expenditures. Congress approved every cent spent to fund the projects outlined in this report and did nothing to stop any of these expenditures.

"In fact, in many cases members of Congress actually took credit for the projects with no shame. All of the outrageous and wasteful contents of this report were made possible by either the action or lack of action of Congress, earning it the well-deserved but unwanted distinction as the biggest waste of taxpayer money in 2012.”