Weaponizing Waste

Sen. Tom Coburn leaves behind a lasting legacy of highlighting wasteful government spending

Sen. Tom Coburn (R.,Okla.) / AP
February 6, 2014

Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R., Okla.) long crusade against government spending is coming to an end.

"The doctor from Muskogee," as he prefers to call himself, recently announced his retirement at the end of the year. With him goes the Wastebook, his annual compendium of extravagant government spending, boondoggles, and sheer frivolity, all at the taxpayer’s expense.

This year, the fourth-annual Wastebook highlighted $30 billion in government expenditures, such as grants to promote romance novels, "lifestyle coaches" for Senate staffers, and research on duck penises.

The annual release of the Wastebook has become something of a second Christmas for reporters interested in government waste. Those journalists wonder, where are we to learn about federally funded duck penis studies now?

Coburn said he was not sure if any of his colleagues would continue Wastebook.

"Oh, I don't know," Coburn said. "They may, they may not. The key is all of us ought to be looking at this. There ought to be 535 Wastebooks."

The first Wastebook was released in 2009. Coburn had long been one of Congress’ most vocal budget hawks, first in the House and then in the Senate, but even in the upper chamber his power was mostly limited to procedural delays and committee hearings.

It was then that his office struck upon the idea of public shaming.

"We just found that we weren't making any headway when we raised these issues with our colleagues," Coburn said. "I think it was [legislative director] Roland Foster who came up with the idea. He said, ‘Let's just put out a book every year on the top 100 examples of government waste.’"

There was no lack of material for that first Wastebook. It was produced in the midst of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the stimulus.

The inaugural edition of Wastebook chronicled, among other things, a $3.4 million crossing for turtles in Florida and a $1.1 million repair to a guardrail next to a dry lake.
The report is a yearlong endeavor for Coburn’s staff, who comb through thousands of government projects, grants, and expenditures. The staff narrows the field down to about 400 or 500 examples, and then Coburn personally chooses the final cut.

Once Wastebook is complete, its first stop is to the offices of the other 534 members of Congress.

"We send it in advance to all members, so they know what's in their state and can prepare if they were complicit in the stupidity," Coburn said.

Critics of the Wastebook say many of the programs it highlights are not actually wasteful but produce real benefits. That turtle crossing, for example, is on a highway that has the highest road-kill rate for turtles in the world.

But Coburn argues it is nonsensical to pay for these things when our nation’s bridges and infrastructure are crumbling away.

"You all are paying for this crap, you young people," Coburn told me. "We're all going to be dead and gone, and you’re going to be toast."

Coburn then launched into a jeremiad about the national debt. It is a familiar subject for him. He published a book in 2012 called The Debt Bomb, warning that America’s debt would end up crippling it.

Many left-leaning wonks dismiss Coburn’s debt fears, and it did not help when the economic study underpinning Europe’s conservative austerity policies was found to have a major error.

"Has your impression changed since the book was published?" I asked.

"We seem like we're in less trouble because there’s less hiccups in Europe right now, but if you look at our gross debt to GDP, it’s 115 percent, and that's with an interest rate of less than one and a half percent."

Coburn rattled off the country’s net unfunded liabilities, which dwarf our net assets. Then the billions of dollars the United States wastes on duplicative spending. Then the additional billions Congress is currently considering spending on even more duplicative programs.

"You’re kind of bringing me down, Senator."

"Facts are nasty things," he replied.

Right on the debt or not, no one can argue that Coburn, once dubbed "the most frustrated man in Washington," lacks sincerity.

Wastebook once highlighted a little-used airport in his home state that received nearly half a million dollars in federal funds. He later introduced a successful amendment to cut subsidies to the airport.
Nor is cutting spending a momentary lark for Coburn. One of his first major moves as a senator was an attempt to torpedo earmarks for Alaska’s infamous "Bridge to Nowhere."

"All change starts with a distant rumble," Coburn said on the floor in 2005 as he introduced his amendment. "A rumble at the grassroots level, and if you stop and listen today, you will hear such a rumble right now. That rumble is the sound of hard-working Americans who are getting increasingly angry with out-of-control government spending, waste, fraud, and abuse. It is the sound of the growing disillusionment and frustration of the American people."

Former Sen. Ted Stevens (R., Alaska) was so outraged that a fellow senator would challenge his right to bring home the bacon that he threw what can only be described as an epic tantrum and threatened to resign right there on the floor of the Senate.

Coburn’s amendment received only 15 votes, but he was right about the rumble. After the 2010 midterm elections, Congress banned earmarks. Now Coburn counts about 20 members of the Senate on his side, including several Democrats.

But with the dysfunction and gridlock in the Senate, some folks have begun to question whether earmarks were such a bad thing after all. Say what you will about pork-barrel politics, the argument goes, but at least things got done.

I asked Coburn if he had read any of these arguments.

"Of course I have," he growled. "They make me sick to my stomach."

"Think about what they’re saying here: ‘We've got to have earmarks to grease things,’" Coburn said. "That's a sign that we're already finished. That is leadership that puts personal interests over the nation’s interests."