COMMENTARY Why are Americans averse to tax hikes? Besides the obvious reluctance to pay more, there's Senator Tom Coburn's "Waste Book," a compendium of 100 idiotic ways the federal government frittered away our tax dollars in 2011.
Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, says the unnecessary, duplicative and low-priority projects in the book, released today, add up to an astounding $6.5 billion. To be sure, getting rid of these projects would barely put a dent in the $1 trillion-plus budget deficit. But it might give taxpayers a bit more faith that our money wasn't being thrown away.
While Congress debated whether they could save money by closing loopholes in the Byzantine tax system, about $1 billion in tax credits for energy efficient home improvements were paid to people who didn't own homes, Coburn says.
Remember Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere?" It was never built. But the government spent more than $1 million in 2011 paying people to "promote" it. While Congress debated whether to freeze salaries of current workers, some $120 million in retirement and disability benefits were paid to federal employees who were already dead.
The government funds programs to promote video games, chocolate, and to revamp a scuba-diver's web site. Some of these projects might have merit, Coburn says. But they're certainly not national priorities in an age when burgeoning deficits threaten to shutter the federal government.
"During the past 12 months, politicians argued, debated and lamented about how to reign in the federal government's out of control spending. All the while, Washington was on a shopping binge, spending money we do not have on things we do not absolutely need," Coburn said in a prepared statement. "Instead of cutting wasteful spending, nearly $2.5 billion was added each day in 2011 to our national debt, which now exceeds $15 trillion."
There are 100 projects in the book. Here are some that I considered the most outrageous -- but, frankly, its tough to choose. To see the whole listing, check out Coburn's 2011 Waste Book.
$30 million to help Pakistani Mango farmers: This was part of a four-year, $90 million effort to boost hiring and sales among Pakistani businesses funded through the U.S. Agency for International Development.
$765,828 for pancakes: Federal funding went to the Anacostia Economic Development Corp to build an International House of Pancake franchise (and train its workers) in an "underserved community." The underserved community, however, turned out to the a toney area of Washington D.C. - Columbia Heights, which is termed "one of Washington's more desirable neighborhoods."
$120 million in retirement and disability benefits to federal employees who have died: The Inspector General for the U.S. Office of Personnel management found that "the amount of post-death improper payments is consistently $100 million - $150 million annually, totaling over $601 million in the last five years."
$652,740 to create an Oklahoma "visitor's center": The scenic highway that runs from Talihina, Oklahoma to Mena, Ark., already has three visitor's centers, but this federal grant would create a fourth. The abandoned rock house that the government proposes to turn into a new visitor's center will cost more than 14 times the median value of a home in the area. That would be bad enough, but the Talimena Drive area is in good shape, while the rest of eastern Oklahoma's roads could use some serious attention. The area ranks 8th in the nation for its number of "structurally deficient" bridges.
$113,277 for video games: The International Center for the History of Electronic Games got the money to conduct a detailed conservation survey of video games.
$484,000 for pizza: A private developer was giving federal grant money to build Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers, an Arlington, Tx., outlet known for its tongue-in-cheek references to drug and hippie culture.
$100,000 for a celebrity chef show in Indonesia: The Washington State Fruit Commission asked for the grant to help promote their fruit and cooking recipes in "an emerging market." Can you spell "Boondoggle?"
$10 million for Pakistani Sesame Street: We must really love the Pakistanis. We must have a close and trusting relationship with the country that somehow managed to miss the fact that Osama bin Laden was living within spitting distance of a Pakistani military base for years. Because, after funding the Pakistani Mango growers, the government felt it needed to spend some time and money remaking big bird and the other Sesame Street characters into a show called "SimSim Humara" for the Pakistani market.
$550,000 for "Rockin' the Kremlin: A documentary on how rock and roll contributed to the end of the cold war.
$702,558 to bring television to Vietnamese villages: No, it wasn't just for the sitcoms. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University wanted to know how television affects family formation and reproductive health. So where better to study the problem than 14 remote Vietnamese villages, where the government paid to bring the t.v.s and gas generators, because, of course, these villages also don't have electric power?
The full listing of 100 outrageous ways the federal government wasted your tax dollars in 2011 can be found here. But Coburn rightly notes in a preamble to his report that the biggest waste of our money may be on Congress itself, which recently recorded a 9% approval rating - the lowest in history. The fact that some member of Congress had to propose (and convince colleagues to approve) these projects gives a glimpse into why.
"The year 2011 will be remembered as a period of unrest as outraged Americans of all political stripes...took to the streets in anger and disgust with the direction of our nation," Coburn writes. "As you look at these examples, regardless of your personal political persuasion, ask yourself: Would you agree with Washington that these projects represent national priorities or would you agree that these reflect the wasteful spending habits that threaten to bankrupt the future of the American Dream?"
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