It is, we are certain, designed to generate outrage, incur wrath and mock outrageous government spending. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has released his 2013 version of "Wastebook," a chronicle of what he calls "wasteful and low-priority" federal spending that comes in at a total of $28 billion worth of extravagance.
Now, $28 billion isn't going to break the bank; it's roughly 0.7 percent of the $3.8 trillion spent by the federal government this year. Yet it is indicative of the much larger issue that plagues governments on all levels — not enough attention is paid to how much we spend and where we spend it. As we frequently are reminded, it is all too easy for government officials to not worry about nickels and dimes because it's not their nickels and dimes; those nickels and dimes come from taxpayers. So, Coburn put together his annual list of outrage, providing a 175-page document that includes 100 examples of egregious spending and 930 footnotes.
There is, for example, the $360,000 that NASA spent on Pillownauts, paying 20 people $18,000 apiece to literally lie around for 70 days. Nice work if you can get it. NASA officials say the bed rest study "will help scientists learn how an astronaut's body will change in weightlessness during space flight in the future." That could be beneficial -- if the United States ever revives its space program.
And then there is the $415,000 designed to promote wine tours and wine tastings in China. Because, we're guessing, there are many, many, many Chinese who American wineries could sell wine to if only the Chinese would drink more wine. Part of the program will bring Chinese wine connoisseurs to Washington state to meet with local winemakers -- provided that American prodding can help create some Chinese wine connoisseurs.
And then there is Alaska's infamous Bridge to Nowhere, for which the state spent $2.9 million of federal money this year to clear an expansive right of way. The billion-dollar Knik Arm Bridge likely will never be built, but it probably will continue to be symbolic of wasteful government for years to come.
Not all of Coburn's "Wastebook" honorees are of the nickle-and-dime variety. He highlights $379 million spent "Building, Promoting an Insurance Plan Few Want and a Website that Doesn't Work." And he mentions the $400 million in back pay delivered to employees who were furloughed during the partial government shutdown: "More than 100,000 non-essential federal employees being paid a salary of at least $100,000 were furloughed as non-essential. Each of these was paid $4,000 for the time off work during the shutdown."
But while questions still linger about why the federal government has so many workers who could be deemed non-essential, the foibles pointed out in "Wastebook" tend to turn the discussion away from the meaningful and toward the trivial. There's no question that spending by the federal government is out of hand; you don't create a $17 trillion debt (more than $6.4 trillion of it incurred under President Obama) if you are employing sound fiscal policy.
The federal government's annual discretionary spending amounts to about $1.2 trillion, and roughly half of that goes to the Department of Defense. In addition, the United States spends more on its military than the defense expenditures of the next 13 highest nations combined. Sooner or later, Washington, D.C., is going to have to make some hard decisions regarding spending. But the difficult part probably won't deal with wine tasting in China.