Ever since Ronald Reagan ran for president saying he could balance the federal budget, despite his plans to cut taxes and balloon military spending, by rooting out all the "waste, fraud, and abuse" in the budget, we've been in thrall to the conceit that such a thing is possible. And certain politicians have made a name for themselves as brave investigators of wasteful government. Perhaps no one currently serving has more embodied this brave crusade than Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. And this week, Coburn released an opus entitled Wastebook 2010, which, as he says in the press release, "will give taxpayers and concerned citizens the information they need to hold Washington accountable."
The report is slickly designed and obviously took many, many hours of staff time to produce. But that's the kind of government investment you need if you're going to make an impact on this problem. Now many if not most of the things they've found do sound kind of silly. Did we we need to spend $15.68 million to create a shooting range in Las Vegas? No, we probably didn't. But what about the whole picture?
Since Coburn's staff worked so hard to come up with the 100 worst examples of waste in the federal government, I thought I'd put the product of their work into a spreadsheet and see what we've got, so we can use it to fix the budget. Here are some statistics on the 100 worst pieces of waste:
Total cost of wasteful projects: $10.9337 billion
Average cost of wasteful project: $109.9 million
Median cost of wasteful project: $500,000
Percent of federal budget represented by all 100 wasteful projects: 0.285 percent
So after all this work, Coburn has found less than three-tenths of one percent of the federal budget that is wasteful. But that's not all. There's only one military project in here, cost overruns on the Joint Strike Fighter, which Coburn pegs at $1.5 billion. Is that really the only wasteful project in the entire Department of Defense? The only two other items that exceed a billion dollars are $6 billion in ethanol subsidies (right there with you on that one, Senator), and $1 billion in money he says could be saved if public housing was more energy efficient. Take those three items out of the total, and not only does the average wasteful project fall from $109 million to $29 million, but instead of eliminating 0.285 percent of the budget, we've eliminated 0.065 percent of the budget, or 6.5 one-hundreths of a percent.
Am I saying this is all baloney, and Tom Coburn is not really serious about the budget deficit, but would instead rather preen about pretending to be a "deficit hawk" by wagging his finger at inconsequential but silly-sounding spending, instead of doing things that might actually make meaningful progress toward bringing the accounts into balance? Well...yes.
-- Paul Waldman