From bomb-detecting elephants to catfish inspections, new waste books slam agency spending

By Dena Levitz
Federal News Radio

A $387,000 study by the National Institutes of Health to examine how Swedish massages benefit rabbits. Studies by a trio of federal agencies to understand the nautical movements of sea monkeys.

Those are just a few of the hundreds of wasteful programs that for five years former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) highlighted in his annual Waste Book. The last edition released by Coburn’s office came out in the fall, just before the ranking member of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee retired from office.

Lately, though, there have been a slew of reports in the vein of Waste Book emanating from members of Congress.

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More wasteful spending reports from an Oklahoma official

Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) debuted his first installment of Waste Watch in which he identifies 10 specific instances of waste and mismanagement in government with a price tag totalling $117 million.

Russell, who represents Oklahoma’s fifth district, credited Coburn as the inspiration for the endeavor.

“I wanted to continue on that legacy and really to try to do it in such a fashion that we could maybe do it in quarterly installments … so [our office] might have a chance to impact some of the authorization and appropriation processes,” Russell said in an interview on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

The colorful 16-page result includes descriptions of projects undertaken by federal agencies and explains why they could be construed as overkill or things that, in his mind, should have never been undertaken in the first place.

For instance, Waste Watch cites the fact that the Department of Defense spent $15.4 million in FY 2013 to store items deemed “zero-demand” for at least five years — meaning no one in the military had asked for it for at least half a decade. The photo that accompanies the project is of a warehouse from the blockbuster movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which the report says is “not a bad visualization of the 3.6 million cubic feet the DOD used” to store these unnecessary supplies.

Russell said the examples of government waste come from many sources: suggestions from constituents, Inspector General reports, research by his staff. A team ultimately will put together future editions of Waste Watch, but the Oklahoma congressman said having a staffer who used to work for Coburn on his rendition has been especially helpful.

At this point, Americans have become desensitized by how wasteful the federal government can be, he said.

“But what they still demand is that when we discover it, we try to do something to correct it. When we see wasteful spending, we can’t just allow it to continue,” Russell said.

To this end, the congressman, once he has identified waste, has been writing letters to the departments and agencies involved, asking for their accounting of the programs and how they’ll prevent overspending in the future. During future budget authorization processes, it’s also possible to add directives to cut out or limit specific studies or items deemed questionable.

“There are actually many things we can do,” Russell said.

Bomb-sniffing elephants, multiple catfish inspection offices

The other big crusader against wasteful spending by government is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who recently released a report that also bears a strong resemblance to Coburn’s Wastebook. McCain’s is called “America’s Most Wasted” and has the graphics and look of signage calling for the capture of a fugitive a la “America’s Most Wanted.”

In an introduction at the outset of the book addressed to taxpayers McCain identified the objective as “highlighting, naming and shaming outrageous pork projects funded with your taxpayer dollars” and expressed a desire to follow in Coburn’s footsteps.

“Government spending is spiraling out of control. The national debt recently exceeded $18 trillion, while our $486 billion deficit is projected to reach $1 trillion over the next decade,” he wrote. “Washington’s repeat fiscal offenses are leading us down a dangerous path — sending hard-earned American tax dollars to mismanaged and wasteful programs.”

In the 19 pages that follow, “America’s Most Wasted” also called out 10 projects including:

  • A $50,000 research project to gauge the bomb-detecting capabilities of elephants
  • Allocating $14 million for the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a catfish inspection office, particularly in light of the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration already runs a catfish office of the same variety.

Overall, the spending unearthed by McCain comes to $1.1 billion.

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