Retired Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn was always going to be a tough act to follow when it came to producing the colorful “Wastebook” that he and his staff put out every year to document what they saw as profligate government spending. But Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who inherited the Wastebook when Coburn retired after the 2014 edition, is certainly trying hard. Maybe too hard.
This year’s edition, released Tuesday, is titled “Porkemon Go” and features a cartoon version of Flake on the front, dressed as the character Ash Ketchum from the Pokemon series. It follows on last year’s version, “Wastebook 2015: The Farce Awakens” which took the film from the Star Wars franchise as its theme.
The collection of supposed outrages has always been presented as an affront to fiscal responsibility, and this year’s version is no different. “Within mere days, the national debt will top $20 trillion, the largest amount ever owed by any nation in history, and the federal government’s authority to borrow expires in March,” Flake writes in the introduction. “But rather than making a long overdue resolution to be fiscally responsible, the promises from Washington are to spend even more.”
He continues, “As an example, this past year the outgoing Administration requested that Congress provide billions of dollars in additional money to pay for efforts to address the spread of Zika, a virus transmitted by mosquitoes that can cause birth defects. At the same time, the nation’s most prestigious science agencies were squandering resources already available by investigating matters most would consider obvious or even absurd.”
The Wastebook is a complicated subject to write about objectively. Heavy on snark and mockery, it identifies dozens of examples of obscure federal spending, many of which are objectively wasteful or corrupt. But it also has a history of ridiculing scientific research grants by describing them in narrowest possible way, often omitting their connection to a larger field of legitimate research. Grantees have also criticized it for vastly inflating the amount of money spent on specific studies, or using misleading descriptions of programs to generate anger at the government.
This year’s version looks as though part of it could be subjected to similar criticism. For example, one supposed outrage is that a handful of liquor stores have taken advantage of a Department of Agriculture program to support rural businesses’ effort to install energy efficient lighting.
The section, titled “Getting Lit at the Liquor Store,” complains that the $5,000 grant to a store called Newberry Liquors, in Newberry, Florida, went to an establishment that, “In addition to liquor, wine, and beer ... also serves cigarettes and tobacco products.”
The section flags several other liquor stores that also benefited from the program, creating the impression that the program is specifically aimed at them. The truth, though, is that thousands of rural businesses benefit from the Rural Energy for America Program, from family farms to supermarkets. The Wastebook barely acknowledges that fact at the end of the section, with the throwaway line, “Taxpayers should not have to subsidize the lighting or electricity costs of liquor stores or other businesses” -- where “other businesses” represents the overwhelming majority of the program’s beneficiaries.
A quick read of the report would also suggest that the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry was given a $150,000 federal grant to develop “earthquake-proof gingerbread houses.”
Once past the headline, the write-up of the study at least acknowledges that the holiday-themed gingerbread program was aimed at engaging mostly younger visitors with the principles of engineering in an accessible manner. But what the book doesn’t do is point out that the $150,000 grant was provided to fund a series of three different exhibits, of which the gingerbread-themed program appears to have been just one.
On page 137 of the Wastebook, after 50 examples of supposed government profligacy comes the disclaimer, “The best effort was made to determine the precise cost of the activity, product or service profiled in an entry paid for with taxpayer funds. However, in some cases the exact amount spent was not tracked by the agency, could not be determined, or was spent over a number of years, including future years. Therefore, the amount provided may be the total amount budgeted for the program or grant profiled rather than for the specific purpose highlighted.”
None of this is to say that the Wastebook doesn’t identify some pretty iffy government projects.
For example, Flake’s researchers identified a “spaceport” in Alaska that continues to receive government funding from the Department of Defense despite the fact that it hasn’t been used in years, and appears to be in a serious state of disrepair.
Another is a Florida municipal planning authority that has apparently spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on dubious projects that include golf tournaments and dragon boat races.
And there is no shortage of scientific studies that -- at least presented the way they are by Flake’s writers -- seem pretty absurd. There are fish on treadmills, lustful monkeys and surfing cats. But in many cases, the authors of the book don’t really give the recipients of the grants the opportunity to explain themselves.
That might have been a better use of their time than composing really dreadful paragraphs like this one, complaining about funding for a fishing museum in Massachusetts:
“By reeling in $32,000 from two different agencies, the fledgling Fishing Heritage Center proves that catching government grants is like shooting fish in a barrel. Both grants are supporting efforts to bait tourists to the area by telling fish tales.”