Do you remember spending almost a million dollars in the last few years on a website devoted to romance novels? How about that $17.5 million you spent on brothels in Nevada? Or the $200,000 treating record industry executives to a world tour?
No? Well, technically you didn’t spend all that money. Your government did. But it was your money the government spent.
Romance novels and record tours are just a few among dozens of outrageous expenditures Senator Tom Coburn has cataloged in his 2013 “Wastebook,” the latest of his annual reports to remind us just how out-of-control the federal government has become.
The entire report is worth reading, if only for the experience of discovering example after example of scandalous use of taxpayer dollars, each more absurd than the last, none of which you’ve ever heard of.
For instance, the State Department recently spent $5 million on custom crystal wine glasses for its embassies. USAID spent $300,000 on 600 gallons of diesel in Afghanistan–$500 per gallon, or a hundred times the going rate.
Amtrak lost $60 million last year alone providing food service on its long distance routes (some of which include complimentary wine and cheese, and offer gourmet meals subsidized by taxpayers).
And the USDA gave a $100,000 grant to a North Carolina distillery to “explore the feasibility” of the company making vodka out of yams–in a virtually dry county. The Department also gave nearly $17 million to dozens of businesses to fund the creation of products such as salsa and Bloody Mary mix.
Senator Coburn’s Wastebook is more than just a list of wasteful programs, however. It is a perfect documentation of the advanced breakdown in government we see throughout the federal bureaucracy.
In my new book, Breakout, I describe three kinds of breakdown in government: the breakdown in simple competence, the breakdown in common sense and defined purpose, and the breakdown in the rule of law. We see all of them in this report.
Large parts of the government are simply incompetent at performing the tasks they have taken on. The Wastebook includes $11 billion worth of improper payments the IRS made on the Earned Income Tax Credit last year alone. This is as much as 28 percent of all its Earned Income Tax Credit payments, an unbelievably high error rate which, as the report points out, causes the IRS to “erroneously dish out more money in improper payments than the entire budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, and the Department of Labor.”
Senator Coburn identifies more than a billion dollars a year in Pell Grant fraud: scammers posing as students who take the money from the government and run. Evidently the Department of Education is incapable of stopping it.
The series of wastebooks may be the clearest description ever published of the breakdown in common sense and defined purpose of the federal government. This year’s edition finds that Department of Justice employees spent more than $626,000 last year to book travel by speaking to a live travel agent rather than booking their trip online. That’s because the DOJ’s travel agency charges $6.49 to book a trip over the internet, and a whopping $31 to book one over the phone. In defiance of common sense, the employees used the phone 40 percent of the time.
A more expensive example of this collapse in common sense is the National Technical Information Service. This agency charges other organs of the federal government to provide reports which are largely available for free online. For instance, the wastebook notes, the NTIS sells the “Public Health Service Food Code” to other agencies for $69 a pop. Yet this document is available at no cost over the internet. In fact, it’s the first result when you search “Public Health Service Food Code” on Google. Senator Coburn refers to the NTIS as the “Let Me Google That For You” of the federal government. The agency costs taxpayers $50 million.
Finally, the report illustrates the breakdown in the rule of law. In one example, it points to $30 million intended to restore the Mississippi coast which was instead used for unrelated pet projects. One official allegedly directed millions of dollars worth of grants to entities associated with his family and friends.
Similar corruption exists on a grand scale. As of 2011, Senator Coburn notes, there were 312,000 federal employees or retirees who had failed to pay their income taxes–$3.5 billion worth of them. More than a third of these people (107,000) are current civilian employees (bureaucrats) who have not paid their taxes and yet continue to be paid by the taxpayers. Evidently these “public servants” do not feel they have to live under the law they administer.
This is the breakdown we must overcome. Read Senator Coburn’s Wastebook to understand it. Then demand that your elected officials commit to breaking out.