Ernst Pushes Bill to Prevent Fed Splurge on Lobsters, Candies, Video Games

Sen. Joni Ernst pushing legislation to prevent end-of-year spending surge

Sen. Joni Ernst / Getty Images
September 19, 2019

Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa) wants to ban federal agencies from frivolous end-of-year spending that costs taxpayers an estimated $100 billion each year.

"It just seems common sense to me to look at some of those issues," Ernst said at a closed-door meeting with reporters. "A lot of those agencies and departments are asking for Congress to do something about it, but we aren't acting."

The senator's legislative push comes on the heels of a March report from the transparency advocacy group Open the Books, which found that federal agencies often spent millions on luxury items like lobsters and video games.

Federal agencies prefer to spend their entire budget by whatever means possible rather than admit that they can operate on less money, according to the report. They worry that Congress will appropriate less money in the next fiscal year if they are unable to exhaust current budgets. Ernst's bill will combat this practice by limiting an agency's spending in the final two months of the fiscal year to no more than the average monthly spending up until that point.

"[Federal agencies] would be forced to follow their budget and not spend wastefully at the end of the fiscal year," Ernst said of her bill. "What we see is that they are following the guidelines in the first ten months of the year … But at the end of the year, we have this bloated excess."

Ernst, an Army national guard veteran, singled out the Department of Defense (DoD) as a culprit for overspending. Open the Books said that the Pentagon accounted for about 60 percent of the total end-of-the-year spending by all federal agencies.

"Specifically I would like to target the DoD," she said. "I love the DoD, but there's a lot of waste there. They've spent money on lobster tails, candy bars, video games, all kinds of stuff that we really didn't need in the federal government."

Adam Andrzejewski, the founder of Open the Books, emphasized that many government officials, including procurement officers, want Congress to take action to curb excessive end-of-year spending.

"Your procurement officers, they don't like the situation," Andrzejewski said. "For instance, they have to work weekends at the end of the year. They are working 12 and 13 hour days to push all these contracts out the door. They don't like that. … The procurement officers want a solution to this, they want Congress to crack down, this is the piece of legislation to crack down."

Ernst said her bill, which does not have a co-sponsor, is struggling to build momentum because, "it's not one of those big, sexy topics that people want to tackle." She added that proper stewardship of taxpayer dollars is a bipartisan issue, no matter how boring budget matters may seem to pundits.

"Senators would like to have their name associated with this topic or that topic in the news, and not really focus on what's going on at the ground level," Ernst said. "It's really difficult to break through the news of the day."