15 Crazy Ways the Government Wastes Money

Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation

Ron Swanson, TV’s watchdog on wasteful spending in government | NBC

When was the last time you wasted your money? Maybe it was that time you splurged on out-of-season produce at the grocery store — even though it wasn’t that tasty anyway. Or maybe you bought a dud set of overpriced headphones, despite the Amazon reviews warning you against it. We’ve all spent an ill-advised $100 or so at some point in our lives. But what happens when our money is wasted and we have no control over it?

That’s the point of a 154-page report from Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, a conservative Republican who’s served the state in Washington, D.C. for six years, first as a U.S. Representative and then in the Senate starting in 2015. The report details page upon page of ways the federal government seemingly wastes taxpayer dollars each year, adding to the national deficit by millions and billions of dollars. The Internal Revenue Service collected a record $3.3 trillion from taxpayers in 2015 — the most recent year available — and all of that money goes toward federal programs, grants, and department budgets.

Government waste

“Although the federal debt wasn’t a major focus during the presidential campaign, it remains a serious impending crisis that must be addressed,” Lankford said in a statement about the report. “In Fiscal Year 2016 alone, we had a $587 billion deficit and our federal debt is now an outrageous $19.5 trillion. To lower the debt, we need to grow the economy, and we must root out inefficiencies, duplication, and wasteful spending wherever they exist.”

Titled “Federal Fumbles,” the second-annual report details wasteful spending in a number of government agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Social Security Administration, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, among many others.

Keep in mind, Lankford is a conservative Republican, meaning that he likely believes the government’s role should be much, much smaller than it currently is. (Remember Ron Swanson’s beliefs on the show Parks and Recreation? They’re likely similar, but on a national level.) However, he does point out several ways he believes the government could cut back on its wasteful habits so taxpayer dollars can go to more deserving programs or to pay down the national debt.

Are these items wasteful, or necessary? You decide.

1. Spending $55 billion on old technology

desktop computer from the 1970s

Old technology could be a waste of money | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The federal government gets an $80 billion technology budget each year. That could buy a lot of those MacBook Pros you’ve had your eye on, but in most cases that money is going toward outdated, slow technology in serious need of an upgrade. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, $55 billion of those funds — or about 68% — is used for “services that do not use solutions often viewed as more efficient.”

According to the report, the Department of Defense still uses floppy disks for the system that operates our nuclear weapons. Despite pressure on the Office of Management and Budget to require agencies to update their technology systems to more cost-efficient options, that progress is slow-moving. According to Lankford, the $80 billion budget should go less toward maintaining dinosaur equipment and more toward new systems that speed up the processes in Washington.

2. Using $1 million to tell women not to get in a tanning bed

Tanning bed solarium at health club

The government spends money ensuring no one visits the tanning salon | iStock.com/Ridofranz

By now, we know that jumping in a tanning bed to get a glow for prom or your next vacation is a serious cancer risk. Your dermatologist has told you to just say no, and likely so has your mother. But in case your mother hasn’t taken an active role in your bronzing habits, the National Institutes of Health spent $1.3 million in the last year for a social media campaign that aims to have mothers discourage their daughters from tanning bed use.

According to the report, this is the government overstepping its bounds. “Parents should definitely have a conversation with their children about the health risks of tanning. But it is not the federal government’s job to spend tax dollars to implore parents to have the conversation,” Lankford and his team content.

3. Spending $495,000 for an exhibit about “medieval smells”

Monty Python and the Holy Grail cast

Ever wonder what the cast of Monty Python and the Holy Grail smells like? | Michael White Productions

Ever wonder what a real-time jaunt with the cast of Monty Python and the Holy Grail might smell like? In a joint project, several government agencies pooled almost half a million dollars for a temporary exhibit that would allow people to experience medieval times through the five senses — including smell.

“While some people may be interested in an exhibit of medieval smells, it is not the responsibility of every hard-working taxpayer to fund olfactory experiences,” the report said. “Individuals interested in the exhibit are certainly free to raise private funds instead of relying on taxpayers and adding to our mountain of federal debt.”

4. Spending $3.5 million to expand the U.S. wine market

wine in glasses

The government is helping the wine business | iStock.com

At points in history, certain USDA grants helped to expand the agriculture market, especially for hard-hit farmers of small operations. But what began as a $15 million program swelled to $44 million in 2016, with many grants going toward companies like Ocean Spray and Sunsweet that are already worth millions of dollars. And though we could all use an extra glass of vino, Lankford contends that the industry doesn’t need another $3.5 million in grant money when it’s got Napa.

5. Losing billions in improper Medicaid payments

A pen resting on checks

Medicaid is a good idea, but improper payments are costing billions of dollars | iStock.com/Timurpix

Medicaid was created to provide high-quality health care options for low-income families — a mission that most people believe is a noble one. However, the program is overwhelmed by a number of state and federal requirements that bog down employees and enrollees alike, and the number of mistakes, ineligible enrollees, and cases of fraud have resulted in improper payments totaling more than $142.7 billion since 2009.

6. Enacting 42 programs to provide medical transport

Automobile equipped with the lift for Wheelchair

There are 42 different programs to help transport people to medical care | iStock.com/3355m

It is important for all low-income and disabled Americans to have access to the medical care they need — including the transportation necessary to make it to those appointments. However, the government currently helps to fund 42 separate programs to provide that transportation.

“The federal government should not spend billions of dollars to operate 42 programs, largely with the same goals,” the report reads. Lankford suggested that the Council on Access and Mobility, which is already in place, help to coordinate those resources accordingly and prevent program overlap.

7. Spending $500,000 to text Americans about not chewing tobacco

man working in a tobacco field

The government doesn’t need to remind us about tobacco use | Luke Sharrett/Getty Images

Lankford and company is quite against using federal dollars to campaign for or against personal decisions. Similar to the campaign against tanning beds, the senator also blasted a campaign from the National Institutes of Health, which sends text messages to rural Americans urging them not to use chewing tobacco.

“NIH research should focus on cures, not behavior modification,” the report said. “Every dollar spent texting someone the same message already written on the package in hand is a dollar taken away from critical cures.”

8. Spending $106 million more than budgeted for an office building in Afghanistan

Afghan troops

The government went way over budget in the new Afghanistan headquarters | Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

As part of the U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, the Air Force awarded a $48.7 million contract to build a new headquarters for the Afghan Ministry of Defense. While that venture was acceptable for adding stability and allowing the ministry to take over military operations in its own country, the project ended up being five years late and $106 million over budget. Lankford faulted the Air Force for consistently meeting the requirements of the contractor, despite numerous delays and budget expansions along the way.

9. Funding a $400,000 study about studying glaciers from a feminist perspective


The government is funding a feminist glacier study | Mario Tama/Getty Images

Feminist theories are best left for women’s studies classes — or at least the private sector, Lankford’s report writes. The National Science Foundation spent $412,000 over the last few years funding a paper that argues glaciers should be studied from a feminist point of view. Though all families should be discussing gender roles in a respectful and healthy way, the report contends that such a paper adds very little “tangible benefit” for the American people at large.

10. Dumping $76.5 million on a plane that doesn’t fly

airplane on a runway

This investment was not worth the money | Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

Every now and then, investments are going to fail. We know this, but this investment made by the DOD and the Drug Enforcement Agency was a whopper. The agencies bought and attempted to modify a certain aircraft in Afghanistan, which was eventually supposed to be used for counter-narcotics work in the country. However, the plane has yet to take to the skies and remains sitting in a hangar in Kabul. “At this point the DEA and DOD should cease putting money into this lemon and move on,” the report writes.

11. Spending $500,000 on a documentary about libraries

young student reading book between the shelves

Libraries are important, but this document isn’t worth the expense | iStock.com/anyaberkut

Public libraries are generally seen as a thing to be celebrated. What’s more important than learning to read and free access to books? However, Lankford’s report shows that the National Endowment for the Humanities provided $500,000 for a documentary that will show the history of the public library in the U.S.

Lankford’s complaint isn’t that the organization funded the project: It’s that plenty of private funding was available to use instead. The project received other state and federal grants, along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and an $80,000 Kickstarter fund also went toward the project. “NEH and NEA should ensure grants are provided only to projects of national interest that cannot be funded through the private sector,” the report concludes.

12. Taking 13 years and $180 million to form Homeland Security

homeland security sign

Homeland Security is costing big money | Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Department of Homeland Security was created by combining 22 separate government agencies into one after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. No one doubts that the department’s work is important and necessary, but in the years since, the agencies have continued to use different HR methods with separate computer systems. According to the GAO, the department has made “very limited progress” in addressing certain areas of improvement for consolidating its systems and resources.

13. Paying $225,000 for technology recommendations we already have

children playing with technology

The government is spending money on studies that have already been finished by others | Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

We know that as children are exposed to technology at younger ages, their learning can be affected — for better or worse. This year, the National Science Foundation wraps up a multi-year study on the effects of technology on young children, with a $225,000 price tag.

Having scientific recommendations for how much your children should use technology is important. But Lankford’s problem is that several other reputable organizations have already provided those guidelines. The American Academy of Pediatrics published their recommendations, as did the Department of Education. The NSF receives several million dollars a year, which Lankford said should be used for “innovative research, not duplication.”

14. Allocating twice the space and money necessary for Native American prisons

Prison guard and bars

These prisons are costing big money | Ian Waldie/Getty Images

This time, the Department of Justice is in Lankford’s crosshairs. The department approved grants for two prisons in Arizona on Native American lands that are twice as large as originally thought necessary — and which have gone grossly underutilized since. One of the prisons was for a 132-bed facility in Tuba City with a price tag of $38.6 — much larger and more expensive than the drafted 48-bed facility costing $18.2 million.

Another facility in Kayenta was projected to need 32 beds and cost $20 million. That ended up getting built to house 80 prisoners and add a police station for $31.7 million. All told, the projects cost an extra $32 million — with no more than 11 prisoners in the Tuba City location at any time. Now, both facilities will continue to cost more to remain open and operate than if smaller facilities had been built.

15. Spending $600,000 for inoperable drones

flying drone

Hundreds of thousands of dollars were put toward drones that did not work | John Moore/Getty Images

Perhaps the government should leave drone experimentation to Jeff Bezos and Amazon. While drones can offer a number of advantages, they first have to be operable. However, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives spent $600,000 on six drones that ended up being useless. It was determined that the agency “encountered a series of technological limitations … and concluded that the [drones] were unsuitable for operations.”

A subsequent purchase of another five drones for $15,000 also yielded unsatisfactory results. “It is entirely reasonable to evaluate legitimate law enforcement uses for UAVs, but far greater care and planning should be utilized before the federal checkbook is opened,” Lankford’s report said.

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