Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a longtime deficit hawk, outlines his annual “Wastebook."

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a longtime deficit hawk, outlines his annual “Wastebook." J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Agencies Beg to Differ With Entries in Senator’s ‘Wastebook’

NASA education contractor and humanities endowment take issue with unflattering portrayals of projects.

Representatives from at least two agencies portrayed unflatteringly in Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn’s “Wastebook” released on Tuesday have weighed in with objections to how their projects were characterized.

In his fourth annual compilation of some 100 ways in which, based on research by the senator’s staff, the government appears to be wasting money, Coburn in an accompanying press release and news conference mocked NASA for paying employees to study the workings of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities for awarding grants to academics who study romance novels.

“Most college graduates have taken a course in American Government (or at the very least, seen Schoolhouse Rock) and are familiar with how a bill becomes a law,” Coburn’s report said. “It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science, however, to know that the current Congress has failed to perform its most basic tasks. NASA would be far better off looking for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.”

That didn’t sit well with Kenneth Gold, who for 20 years has been director of the Government Affairs Institute, now part of Georgetown University. The institute delivers the mid-career education on Congress to NASA employees under a five-year contract with a $3 million ceiling, and Gold said this week he has been hit with “a flurry” of emails about the training.

“Our mission is to educate federal officials about congressional process and procedure, and to improve communication and the working relationship between the executive branch and Congress,” he said in an email. “We educate more than 3,000 federal officials a year, and believe that in doing so we help improve the way the federal government works.”

Gold said the Wastebook fails to disclose that the actual cost of the four-day Washington class is $860 per person, including tuition, class materials and breakfast and lunch each day. Costs for an upcoming class with 24 participants total a little more than $20,000.

“Over five years the competitively awarded contract has a maximum of $3 million, although it’s unlikely to reach anything close to that,” Gold wrote. “Not exactly as it’s portrayed.”

In an emailed response, Coburn spokesman John Hart said that even if NASA wasn't going to spend the full $3 million on the training effort, it was responsible for seeking a grant of that size. 

Gold said many of the projects in Coburn’s report “deserve to be pasted.” But the fact that the senator’s staff spent so much time on the heavily footnoted project and then packaged it to look like a comic book, “would lead you to a certain conclusion,” he added. “The good stuff in what the government does gets lost.”

Another of Coburn’s targets was a trio of NEH grants the agency described as follows: “Taking love and its stories seriously, wherever they may be found, the Popular Romance Project will spark a lively, thoughtful conversation between fans, authors, scholars, and the general public about the writing, production, and consumption of popular romance, including its history and transformation in the digital age.”

The Wastebook said: “NEH may love to waste money on this project, but taxpayers are likely to feel jilted about subsidizing the promotion of [an] industry that generated over $1.4 billion in 2012, and remains as hot as ever.”

The endowment issued a statement saying, “The NEH project described in Sen. Coburn’s report consists of three grants for scholarly study. All three grants received high marks from peer review panels that include leading scholars in history, philosophy, cultural studies and other humanities disciplines. The grants were recommended for funding by NEH’s National Humanities Council, which includes appointees from both Republican and Democratic administrations.”

Hart said, “Dr. Coburn's criticism has nothing to do with judging whether it's worth studying romance. This may be the most important study on romance in the history of civilization. His goal is to ask whether studying romance is the best use of scarce federal dollars when we’re facing the impending bankruptcy of safety net programs and crushing debt and deficits. If those conducting the study don't want their work reviewed in Wastebook they should not ask for federal taxpayer funds. Private sources may be willing to research romance.”

Asked about the cost of producing Wastebook itself, Hart said “the cost of not conducting oversight and encouraging a national debate about priorities is incalculable. However, any person can view our office budget and website and decide whether Dr. Coburn’s investment in oversight is worthwhile.”

Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify Coburn spokesman John Hart's characterization of the NASA training grant.