Dec. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Sophisticated politicians and journalists find the movie “Dave” simplistic. The same is said of Senator Tom Coburn when he has his annual moment of life imitating art.
Once a year, Coburn plays Murray Blum, the boring accountant in the movie who uses basic common sense to cut the federal budget as a favor to his friend, a presidential impersonator, played by Kevin Kline. He needs to find $650 million to keep a homeless shelter open. Murray shows him that the money can readily be found in wasteful and unquestioned government programs such as one that absurdly aims to make Americans feel better about their cars.
There are hundreds of such programs tucked away in various agency budgets and, like his fictional doppelganger, Coburn finds the most egregious ones. “We’ve had the Defense Department and people in the other nondefense discretionary departments screaming ‘the cupboard is bare,’” Coburn said. “There’s nothing else to cut. The fact is that just isn’t true.”
The Oklahoma senator’s “Wastebook” lists 100 of them. There’s the truly ludicrous (a $125,000 3-D pizza printer for astronauts) to the mildly ludicrous (a State Department effort to get liked on Facebook). The National Aeronautics and Space Administration spent $3 million to determine whether there was intelligent life in Congress.
And, apparently, our government doesn’t know about this newfangled thing called Google. While some of us can type in the word “infrastructure” and hit the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button, the Department of Commerce’s National Technical Information Service is spending $50 million to look up easily accessible stuff.
Did you know you can deduct certain medical procedures if they are necessary for your job? Our irrational tax code allows brothels in Nevada to take $17.5 million in exemptions for such necessities as breast implants. Pole workers of a different sort -- those tending to electrical and other wires -- got a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to put on the PowerUp project, a 90-minute dance that will feature “bucket trucks, cranes and field trucks, plus a set of 25 utility poles,” all set before a live audience.
OK, ridiculing the NEA is shooting fish in a barrel. But Coburn also takes on a Republican sacred cow: the Department of Everything, as he calls it, which, among other things, is studying beef jerky. This summer, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel wailed that because of the mandatory spending cuts under sequestration, “We risk fielding a force that is unprepared.”
Coburn found plenty of savings he could use to prepare it. The Pentagon is leaving 2,000 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, which cost $500,000 each, in Afghanistan to be destroyed after U.S. forces withdraw.
Then there’s the Army’s $297 million “mega-blimp,” or Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, which was intended for Afghanistan but made only one trip: a short flight over New Jersey. As spending headed toward $300 million, the military sold it to a private contractor at the fire-sale price of $301,000. Even as the National Guard is being cut by 8,000 troops, $10 million was spent on Superman movie tie-ins.
Pretty soon you’re talking about real money. Congress authorized the purchase of 21 C-27 transport planes despite testimony from a former Air Force chief of staff in 2012 that the Air Force didn’t want them. But they’d already contracted for the planes, which were mothballed. “When we buy $700 million worth of airplanes and half of them we’re going to cut up and half of them we’re going to put in the desert, it doesn’t fit with common sense,” Coburn said.
The lack of common sense is everywhere. Who green-lighted the Popular Romance Project? The National Endowment for the Humanities has given $914,000 to a study of the origins of romance. Kindle Alert: For $100, read the collected works of Danielle Steel.
Meanwhile, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents are ready for their close-up. The FBI spends $1.5 million each year to educate Hollywood producers and writers on how to portray the agency. There are other signs of a lurid fascination with pop culture. The almost bankrupt U.S. Postal Service has paid $556,000 to the futurist Faith Popcorn to envision a viable future for itself. And New York and New Jersey took $65 million in Superstorm Sandy emergency relief money to make television ads to encourage people to visit.
In all, the Wastebook chronicles $30 billion in stupid spending, enough to make sequestration unnecessary. Coburn isn’t a mindless Tea Party person who favors no spending, and he’s willing to gore his own ox. He just wants someone to listen when his inner Murray Blum goes through the books.
It’s a shame how only the good go home early. Coburn is abiding by the term limits he set for himself and won’t seek another term in 2016. The Pentagon won’t mind his departure, but the rest of us will miss him.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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