Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., releases his report on waste.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., releases his report on waste. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

From Electronic Puppets to Icelandic Fish, Senator Questions $500B in Federal Spending

"Federal Fumbles" report identifies what senator calls wasteful or poorly prioritized spending.

From federal hiring and firing to Shakespeare-inspired dance routines with dogs to major policy reforms, a senator on Monday unveiled a report detailing what he identified as nearly half a trillion dollars in wasteful federal spending.

The third annual report on “Federal Fumbles” from Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., listed an array of agency spending he called silly, bad policy or otherwise not in the public interest. Many of the examples focused on federal research grants, though they also included major proposals such as reshaping investments at the Transportation Department and tweaking Medicare.

“Our $20 trillion national debt will continue to increase until we implement spending cuts, government reforms and create a healthy economy,” Lankford said. “This Federal Fumbles report provides commonsense examples of ways to limit our spending and fix government inefficiency.”

Lankford highlighted a grant awarded by the National Endowment of the Arts that, after going toward a local organization in New England, eventually awarded $30,000 for a dance performance called Doggie Hamlet. The grant was first highlighted by The Washington Free Beacon and its creator eventually defended her work in The New York Times. Lankford said the performance involved people running around and yelling at “very confused sheep and dogs.” The NEA, the senator said, should refocus its grant awards on projects that “advance the arts and our national interests.”

Several “fumbles” Lankford identified involved the federal workforce. He questioned the Internal Revenue Service for rehiring employees it had fired for poor performance and the Homeland Security Department for failing to hire quickly enough to meet its operational needs. The report cited the Education Department for paying for an employee to get a degree that had nothing to do with his job and that contained no continuity of government agreement and the Labor Department for enabling employees to abuse its telework agreement. It blamed the U.S. Postal Service for allowing its workers to take leave without pay to campaign for their candidates of choice in the runup to the 2016 election, which a previous audit found caused the mailing agency to dole out an extra $90,000 in overtime.

Many of the fumbles stemmed from National Science Foundation grants as has often been the case in congressional reports on waste. Lankford faulted NSF for spending $300,000 on research regarding lawmakers’ “dear colleague” letters used to recruit cosponsors and signatures for letters. He denounced grants for studies of local or tribal languages in foreign countries, saying the agency should instead prioritize research into Native American languages. The report questioned NSF spending $2.6 million on a series of studies into stickleback fish and their ability to adapt to different environments. The senator conceded “there may be some value” to the research, but drew the line at the $1.8 million NSF awarded to study how the fish functioned in Iceland. NSF spent another $40,000 in Iceland for research into the services the country offered refugees, which Lankford said should have been left to the local government.

In many cases, Lankford said the federal spending was not altogether useless but simply not a national priority. He mocked the National Endowment for the Humanities for providing $75,000 to a university to create electronic versions of puppets so they could eventually be scanned and used on a virtual reality device. The grant, the awardees said, would enable users to better control movements and facial expressions. The National Institutes of Health has spent $1.1 million on studies researching the impact of different types of housing and financial assistance on recipients. Delivering optimal outcomes to those in need should be a priority, Lankford said, but NIH should not engage in “manipulating people for science.”

The report faulted agencies for spending large and small. It highlighted a $20,000 NEA grant that funded two weeks of what Lankford called an adult “summer camp,” that provided a forum for artists and scientists to discuss climate change. It also cited the Air Force for spending $745 million on a project to upgrade its Air Operations Center that was ultimately terminated, and the Defense Department for misplacing $1 billion worth of equipment. Improving tax return auditing procedures, Lankford said, citing a recent inspector general’s report, could lead to an additional $458 billion in revenue.

The first two iterations have led to billions of dollars in savings and better policy outcomes, Lankford said, pointing primarily to deregulatory efforts by Congress and the Trump administration.