GOP Senator Claims Furloughs Are a Scare Tactic, Offers Alternatives

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. Sue Ogrocki/AP File Photo

This story has been updated. 

Perennial anti-waste campaigner Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., on Friday accused the Obama administration of pretending “it can’t find savings” while employing scare tactics such as threatening furloughs during the sequestration debate.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Coburn offered examples of waste in three agencies and suggested budget cuts that would involve changes in national policy.

“What is dramatic isn't the size of the sequestration cuts but recent increases in government spending,” Coburn wrote. “Since 2002, total federal spending has increased nearly 89 percent while median household income has dropped 5 percent and median wealth has dropped 23 percent. In other words, while families have been doing more with less, government has been doing less with more.”

Proposing a policy change, Coburn said the government “could save $14.8 million a year (according to IRS data) and prevent 5,103 furloughs” simply by no longer “sending unemployment checks to millionaires.”

The Transportation Department, Coburn said, could avoid furloughs and flight delays for airline passengers and save as much as $1.2 billion through such steps as curtailing subsidies to “Airports to Nowhere” that serve fewer than 10 passengers a day. He mentioned $34 billion in “unobligated funds lying around that could help prevent delays and disasters.”

The Homeland Security Department, Coburn wrote, could avoid forcing passengers into longer screening lines at airports by curbing a “wasteful” $830 million grant program that “gave America an underwater robot for Columbus, Ohio, and a BearCat armored-personnel carrier to guard a pumpkin festival in Keene, N.H. (population 23,000).”

The National Institutes of Health, he continued, could prevent 62 furloughs by “shifting money to working families from quail research—and thousands of other frivolous expenditures.” He was referring to a $181,000 study funded in 2010 looking at the reproductive habits of Japanese quail. Coburn has blasted that study numerous times.

If furloughs can’t be avoided, the senator wrote, they should at least be targeted at federal employees who “already don’t bother to show up for work.” Citing his own report from 2008, he said there were 3.5 million hours in 2007 during which employees were “AWOL.”

Asked for a response, a Homeland Security spokeswoman noted that under sequestration, all programs will be cut, and some to their lowest levels in years. “Threats from terrorism and the need to respond and recover from natural disasters do not diminish because of budget cuts,” said DHS Deputy Press Secretary Marsha Catron, in an email to Government Executive.  “Even in the current fiscal climate, we do not have the luxury of making significant reductions to our capabilities without significant impacts. All DHS programs and initiatives, including those mentioned, will be subject to cuts under the sequester. We will work to continue to preserve our frontline priorities as best we can, but no amount of planning can mitigate the negative effects of sequestration.”

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