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‘Wastebook’ Is a Waste

What Senator Coburn’s list of fraud, abuse, and overspending doesn’t tell us.

There’s a reason politicians are always loath to cut government budgets: It typically means hacking away at programs people like, and painful cuts lead to scary headlines. In Arizona, the state legislature recently cut off organ transplants for Medicaid patients, and the press responded with tales about sick patients who could die as a result. Not pretty. That’s why, when House Republicans pledged this week to cut federal spending by some $88 billion when the budget comes up for renewal in March, they shied away from specifics. Voters, after all, may say they care about deficits, but they get antsy when they find out what, exactly, is getting sliced.

So here comes Tom Coburn to try to make budget-cutting more palatable. On Monday, the Oklahoma Senator released his “Wastebook 2010,” which reveals $11.5 billion in purportedly frivolous government programs. $615,000 to archive the Grateful Dead’s back-catalog! $1 million for poetry at zoos! And, Coburn suggests, that’s just what a cursory examination turned up—in all, hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money might be getting flushed down the drain.Not surprisingly, the report garnered adoring press attention. Stories of “gold-plated potties” in Arkansas feed into stereotypes about unaccountable government bureaucrats. Plus, there’s a comforting moral here: Surely, the report suggests, we can balance the budget without wincing—all we need to do is rid ourselves of waste, fraud, and abuse. Lower taxes and better government. What’s not to love?

Trouble is, a closer look at Coburn’s “Wastebook” (which, mind you, was also footed by taxpayers) suggests there’s less here than advertised. The report does offer up a broad—and useful—taxonomy of waste, fraud, and abuse in the public sector. But, as it turns out, rooting this stuff out isn’t always so simple—and doing so would do less to close the gaping budget deficit than Coburn would like us to believe. What’s more, in many cases, Coburn’s report overlooks even more egregious abuses. To see why, it helps to sort his findings into five broad categories:

Resource inefficiency. This is one of the biggest problems, and possibly the simplest to cure. Federal employees waste at least $930 million each year in paper costs (and the Pentagon another $490 million) just through unnecessary printing. The problem? No guidelines on what people should and shouldn’t print out. Easy enough. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy loses $2.2 million each year by not turning off lights. Coburn likely understates the problem here: Surely, the government could lower its energy bills through all sorts of sensible efficiency measures—better building insulation, say. Barack Obama recently ordered all federal agencies to do just that, a move that could save up to $11 billion.

(As a side note, Coburn could extend this line of thought even further. After all, the entire U.S. economy wastes energy in similar fashion: One McKinsey study found that the country could meet its 2020 climate goals—and save some $700 billion—through measures like weatherizing homes or installing combined heat and power systems. Once we’re done berating those laggard DOE employees, why not think bigger?)

Outright fraud. The “Wastebook” notes that scam artists have swindled Medicare, yet ranks this outrage on par with the $30,000 spent on a new Hawaiian cookbook. But the two aren't comparable at all—by some estimates, Medicare and Medicaid lose $60 billion each year from fraud. And some of the stories are horrific: NPR reported that some clinics in Florida were billing Medicare for expensive HIV/AIDS drugs and then injecting patients with saline solution. (The Medicare fraud industry has become so lucrative that many of Miami's drug traffickers are switching careers.)

A big reason fraud is so rampant, however, is that the government spends too little on enforcement: The FBI can’t keep up with increasingly clever cons. Democrats tried to tackle this in the stimulus bill, providing $200 million to attack scams and billions more to computerize medical records (which will likely help investigators catch dubious billing practices). But conservatives savaged the stimulus, and they’re obviously not proposing an increase in spending to crack down on Medicare hucksters.

What’s more, Coburn overlooks an even bigger fraud problem: tax evasion. A 2008 report from the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations found that the United States loses a whopping $100 billion each year from offshore tax havens—orders of magnitude larger than all those gold-plated toilets combined. And yet, this gets no mention at all. (Coburn is, however, alarmed by the $112 million in bogus tax refunds that prisoners received last year.)

Reasonable programs that just sound odd. Some of the supposedly nonsensical programs Coburn denounces sound a lot less ludicrous up close. For instance, the National Institutes of Health spent $442,340 to study male prostitutes in Vietnam and $800,000 on a genital-washing program in South Africa. Ha, cackles the report. Genitals! Except both studies are seeking to understand how HIV is transmitted. Given that the United States spends billions of dollars to fight HIV/AIDS abroad, that hardly seems like a silly idea.

Likewise, the University of New Hampshire won a $700,000 grant to study methane emissions from cows. “Wastebook” cackles that all those dumb researchers discovered was that cows release most methane through belching, not flatulence. What, pray tell, is the problem here? Methane is a major heat-trapping gas responsible for global warming. Assuming we want to reduce these emissions, we need to get a better sense of where they come from. If Coburn doesn’t believe in global warming, that’s a different subject entirely.

Coburn also goes after National Science Foundation (NSF) grants. In 2008, a professor at UC-Irvine received $100,007 to study “World of Warcraft.” A Stanford University professor received $239,100 to study Internet dating. Do these sound silly? Possibly. But NSF grants are screened by fellow scientists, who may well have seen merit in the study of widely used social-networking sites. (Seeing as how Congress was recently browbeating Craigslist for its adult-services section, it's not outlandish that online dating could one day become a public policy issue.) The whole idea behind the NSF was that peer review was a better basis for awarding research grants than having a politician like, well, Tom Coburn skim the headline of a study and decide whether it suits his sensibilities or not.

Misspent stimulus. The “Wastebook” reports thatShreveport, Louisiana, spent $1.5 million in stimulus money on mold remediation for a building facing demolition. Portland used $900,000 of stimulus to build bike signs that were only slightly different from existing signs. Useless? Sure. But even useless projects can bolster the economy—an unneeded sign still has to be built and installed and painted by workers who get paid for their troubles.

And there are only two responses here: Either the stimulus money can be cut entirely, in which case the government’s doing that much less to pump up the economy. (Indeed, economists fear that the big cuts envisioned by the House would likely counteract the stimulative effects of the recent tax-cut bill.) Or, the money can be redirected to more appropriate spending ends. At times, Coburn hints that he’d be amenable to the latter: In a discussion of a federally funded neon museum in Las Vegas, he asks, “With Nevada’s high unemployment rates, would it be more popular to figure out a better place in the state to spend the money?” Probably yes! But, in that case, the government wouldn’t save a penny. Coburn can’t have it both ways.

Actual lunacy. Finally, we get to the real, clear-cut, mindless waste in the government. Plenty of Coburn’s examples fit in this category. The Department of Veterans Affairs spends up to $175 million maintaining buildings it doesn’t use—because the agency is prohibited from selling them off. In Washington, D.C., shuttle buses for public employees overlap routes, costing an extra $4.2 million. These mistakes could all be eliminated without discomfort—and Coburn’s providing a valuable service by calling attention to them.

But cleaning up these messes also wouldn’t save much money. At most, a couple billion in a $3 trillion federal budget. Coburn told ABC, “I would tell you that there’s hundreds of billions of dollars every year, that if the American taxpayer could go down through it, they’d say ‘wipe this off, this off, this off ... we don’t think any of this is important.’” But there’s no evidence that this is actually true--which explains why, when state legislatures have to make budget cuts, they always end up making agonizing decisions. Employees get laid off, patients get denied organ transplants, and prisoners get shoved into overcrowded auditoriums. Believing that waste, fraud, and abuse are enough to eliminate the deficit is a nice fantasy, but it's still a fantasy.

Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor for The New Republic.