Oklahoma Republican, champion watchdog of the U.S. taxpayer retiring from Senate
By Stephen Dinan – The Washington Times
This year’s Wastebook does not show the $5,210 that the State Department tried to spend on a blowup, human-size foosball field for an embassy in Belize.
But the fact that the project isn’t in Sen. Tom Coburn’s annual report on ridiculous spending choices is probably one of the biggest victories of the report, because it means the State Department canceled the project after the senator’s staffers asked about it.
It’s the other 100 projects in the report — including subsidies for professional sports stadiums and grants to study gambling monkeys — that the Oklahoma Republican said should have taxpayers steaming.
Plenty of lawmakers talk about rooting out government waste, but Mr. Coburn makes a cause of it. He deploys staffers to peruse newspapers and dig through government websites to spot the tens of billions of dollars in pork, boondoggles and extravagance that have contributed to the government’s trillions of dollars of debt.
Mr. Coburn is retiring at the end of this year after a decade in the Senate, meaning the 239-page, meticulously footnoted volume he is releasing Wednesday will be his final Wastebook as senator. His departure is raising questions about who, if anyone, will pick up his oversight banner.
“To bureaucrats and politicians, none of this is waste, which is why the only way to stop wasteful Washington spending is by shining a light on it whenever and wherever it occurs, even if it is in your own state — especially when it is in your own state,” Mr. Coburn told The Washington Times. “That is why I think every member of Congress should issue their own version of Wastebook so we can debate and set our national priorities every year.”
The Times was allowed to watch some of the decision-making behind this year’s report as the senator and his staff talked through the projects, debated the order of the 10 most wasteful and drafted the report’s cover. This edition is designed to mimic the salacious supermarket tabloids in a commentary on how ridiculous some of the projects have become.
Leading this year’s edition is $19 million in salaries that the government paid to workers who were suspended from their jobs, usually because of misconduct that would have resulted in outright firing at a private company. Other highlights include the $50,000 spent to study whether sea monkeys’ swimming changes the flow of oceans, $450,000 that the Homeland Security Department spent on high-end gym memberships for staffers whose federal health insurance already pays for gym benefits and the increasing number of veterans who get disability payments by claiming sleep apnea at a cost Mr. Coburn said could reach $1.2 billion.
All told, Mr. Coburn identifies $25 billion in waste from the 100 projects.
Although everyone in his office from interns on up contributes ideas, Mr. Coburn is the one driving Wastebook. He spots items throughout the year and fires them off in emails collected by his legislative director, Roland Foster.
By the time Wastebook rolls around, the authors have more than enough items. The senator is a tough critic, shooting down write-ups when he thinks expenses could be justified or demanding details for proof that the government is truly profligate.
That was what Mr. Coburn was doing on a busy afternoon in September while other senators were rushing to finish business. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, was closing up shop before sending lawmakers home for two months of campaigning before the midterm elections.
Mr. Coburn had meetings stacked up and reserved time to speak on the Senate floor, but he was going over the early write-ups of some of the Wastebook projects with Mr. Foster, staff attorney Patrick Bailey, and Keith Ashdown and Chris Barkley, who are the staff director and assistant staff director for Mr. Coburn on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The senator insists on highlighting projects from his home state of Oklahoma, figuring it’s only fair. He encountered one on butterfly farming, a $500,000 Agriculture Department grant to a town on an Indian reservation to help tribe members start raising and selling butterflies.
The $500,000 is enough to provide every member of the town a starter kit and still have more than $300,000 left over, Mr. Coburn calculated. As of August, however, just 50 of the 845 tribe members had signed up.
The tribe wasn’t convinced it wanted to do the project until it learned it could obtain federal funding — which is exactly why the money is not a good expense, the Wastebook concludes.
“I can’t imagine 300 people are going to be employed raising butterflies in Oklahoma,” the senator tells his staffers in one meeting.
Not every project is a victory. One left on the cutting floor this year involved Pentagon sponsorship of a video game festival. Mr. Foster spotted an advertisement for the festival on the subway and pursued the project, but in the end wasn’t able to get the Defense Department to disclose a cost figure.
Agencies are increasingly balking at cooperating with fiscal watchdogs like Mr. Coburn who believe they have a right to know how the government is spending their money.
His office now enlists the Congressional Research Service, with in-house research staff, to make some of inquiries. Mr. Coburn also asks for help from the Government Accountability Office, the chief investigative arm of Congress.
This year, Mr. Coburn had the GAO investigate the tens of millions of dollars doled out to federal employees on “paid administrative leave” — meaning they collect salaries even as many are on suspension for misconduct.
“Wastebook is like a scavenger hunt. It does not require a law degree or even years of D.C. experience, just some common sense and dedication with a leader who takes his role as a representative of taxpayers seriously,” Mr. Foster said. “If a 22-year-old intern can do this, why can’t a chairman of a powerful committee with a staff of dozens and a budget of millions?”
‘The real deal’
The State Department’s human-sized foosball game says a lot about how Wastebook is compiled.
One of Mr. Coburn’s staffers saw the project posted on USASpending.gov, a website that resulted from a bill sponsored by Mr. Coburn and Sen. Barack Obama in 2006. The foosball system was one of a few game purchases posted by the State Department.
Mr. Coburn’s staff fired off an email with questions to the State Department. The department promised to look into the project, and a day later quietly posted a change order to USASpending.gov canceling the expense.
It turns out the project was intended for the U.S. Embassy in Belize and was supposed to be used as a management tool for leadership training and team-building. But when Mr. Coburn flagged it, department officials reconsidered.
A State Department official even praised Mr. Coburn, saying Secretary John F. Kerry, a former senator himself, admires Mr. Coburn’s work.
“He was sincere as they come and cared about getting results, not grabbing headlines,” the official said, asking for anonymity to discuss the item. “So it wasn’t a surprise when Sen. Coburn asked his staff to tip off the department about a request an embassy had made to purchase a human foosball table for a few thousand dollars.”
The official said nothing was inherently wrong with the foosball system and team-building exercises, but it wasn’t a good use of money with belt-tightening throughout government.
“Sen. Coburn gave us the heads-up, the order was canceled and Sen. Coburn quietly got a good result for everyone instead of blasting out a press release to score political points,” the State Department official said. “It was just a class act by a genuine steward of the taxpayer dollar. It reaffirmed for Secretary Kerry that Coburn was the real deal.”
‘This can’t be good’
Not all federal agencies are as appreciative of Mr. Coburn’s work. One agency he has battled is the National Technical Information Service, a Cold War-era agency that acts as a clearinghouse for government reports.
After the Government Accountability Office reported that many of the documents the service sells to other government agencies are available online free of charge, Mr. Coburn demanded explanations. He then found out the agency was selling his reports, too, causing him to demand an end to the “ridiculous situation.”
The information service crafted a reply — but pointedly didn’t thank him for his inquiry, figuring that would sound “somewhat disingenuous.”
“I recommend that NTIS not thank the senator,” Gail Porter, chief of public affairs at the agency, told her colleagues in emails editing the draft reply. The emails were obtained by The Times through open-records requests.
The National Science Foundation also has been a frequent Coburn target — particularly the agency’s funding for political science research. Last year, Mr. Coburn managed to win an amendment that effectively halted federal funding for political science papers, though the prohibition was dropped this year.
Political scientists were enraged at Mr. Coburn’s move and mounted a fierce campaign to defend their funding, insisting that taxpayer funding was a mark of its importance.
The academics also took personal umbrage at Mr. Coburn. Several of them jokingly blamed the senator when fire alarms forced an evacuation of the hotel at this year’s American Political Science Association convention in Washington.
The association didn’t respond to a request for comment about its battles with Mr. Coburn.
Wastebook is just one of Mr. Coburn’s projects. He was one of the first to sound a warning about bungled care at Veterans Affairs clinics and issued a scathing report last year blaming Congress for overwhelming the National Park Service with low-priority projects, leaving the agency struggling to maintain some of its natural treasures.
His masterpiece, however, may be a 2012 report by the permanent subcommittee on investigations exposing a Social Security disability fraud ring in West Virginia.
“I imagine for an agency, getting a call from Coburn’s investigators is like getting a call from ’60 Minutes’: This can’t be good,” said Bruce Reed, a former top official in the Clinton and Obama administrations. Mr. Reed worked with Mr. Coburn on the deficit commission run by former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson.
Mr. Reed praised Mr. Coburn’s work, saying his reports on government waste provide a blueprint for anyone looking to see how the government sometimes goes off the rails in its spending decisions.
“Washington is full of politicians who love to talk about waste. Coburn sends his team to go find it and name names, and that makes all the difference,” Mr. Reed said.