"Wastebook 2011," released Tuesday, ranks and describes 100 items totaling more than $6.5 billion as "examples of some of the most egregious ways your taxpayer dollars were wasted on countless unnecessary, duplicative and low-priority projects spread throughout the federal government," Coburn wrote.
Colorful examples include $150,000 in Institute of Museum and Library Services funds for an American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Mich.; $175,587 in National Institutes of Health funds for a University of Kentucky study of the sex habits of quail to pinpoint links between cocaine use and risky sex; and a National Science Foundation grant of $198,195 to the University of California-Riverside for research on whether using social media makes one happy.
Also making this year's list are larger-scale agency line items such as $68 million in fiscal 2011 for the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal partnership with 13 states set up in 1965 during the War on Poverty to promote economic development. Several groups have "identified" it as a candidate for elimination, the report said, including the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, the Congressional Budget Office, and a report by Citizens Against Government Waste.
The Coburn report, bound with a light-hearted cover with images of a monkey, a toy train and a magician's rabbit, is heavily footnoted and cites numerous news reports. The estimated price tag is about half the 2010 total of $11.5 billion.
Coburn included two projects in his home state; $529,689 in Transportation Department highway funds to transform an abandoned rock house into a visitors center; and $93,000 from the Agriculture Department to conduct a statewide advertising campaign to promote Oklahoma's farmers markets.
He also blasted his own branch of government for spending too much time "bickering" while ignoring the rising national debt. "Perhaps there was no bigger waste of the taxpayer's money in 2011 than Congress itself," he wrote. "The dismal 9 percent approval rating, the lowest ever recorded, would indicate the vast majority of Americans would agree."
In his introduction, Coburn does acknowledge that some of the items are subject to debate on their merits. So he asks the reader to consider three questions, "Can we afford these things when we are running annual deficits exceeding $1 trillion? Do these initiatives match your understanding of the role of the federal government as outlined by the enumerated powers of the U.S. Constitution? Do these represent national priorities, or do they reflect the wasteful spending habits threatening to bankrupt the future of the American dream?"
Gary Therkildsen, a federal fiscal policy analyst at the nonprofit OMB Watch, criticized Coburn's approach for failing to address policy differences. "It lacks any sense of constructive purpose, other than to complain about government spending," Therkildsen told Government Executive. Though the report is "well-intentioned" and may well have uncovered wasteful spending, many of the programs could be debated in the public sphere to gauge public support, he said. "Some programs could be well-run, but Congress hasn't provided the necessary funds to make sure they're well-run," he said.
An example he cited is Coburn's targeting of $6 million in grants from the Federal Aviation Administration to subsidize small airports, which are being viewed "out of context," Therkildsen said, because many people don't remember that the grants were introduced by Congress to entice small airlines when many were going belly up after the deregulation of the airline industry in late 1970s.
"In the end, these things for conservative politicians become a self-fulfulling prophecy that government doesn't do anything right," Therkildsen added. "These reports just become more ammunition to use against what Coburn likes to call big government."
Thomas Schatz, president of the nonprofit Citizens Against Government Waste, said, "Sen. Coburn serves a useful purpose for taxpayers by identifying projects that are easily understood and easily communicated to people so they understand where their money is going. Whether we have $15 trillion debt or a $15 trillion surplus, the money should not be wasted."