America’s Most Wasted: Where Tax Money Should and Should Not Go

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has had an active week in the media, weighing in on the court’s decision on the NSA bulk phone collection program, and publishing the spending report, “America’s Most Wasted.”

People seem to have forgotten 9/11,” said McCain, according to The Hill. “It’s pretty clear that 9/11 could have been prevented if we had known about some of the communications that were linked to those who committed the terrible atrocity of 9/11.” The ACLU says the ruling will help to keep government surveillance on American citizens in check with the legal allowances of the Patriot Act, and the court decision could eventually have an effect on other programs within the government.

McCain has also been taking a look at government reform himself however, and there are areas he does believe need to be put under closer scrutiny — areas beyond just our phone calls. His report on governmental projects that waste money is one such effort toward reform. He describes his report as a continuation of “the remarkable work that Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn did for years” with “Wastebook,” with the goal of “highlighting, naming, and shaming outrageous pork projects funded with your taxpayer dollars.” He states that in total, the report shows $1.1 billion worth of spending on projects that are of debatable merit.

The report also identifies at least $294 billion in programs that are no longer authorized to receive funding due to Congress’s persistent unwillingness to pass authorization bills and oversee the spending that follows,” writes McCain in a forward. Some of the items in his report are arguably a matter of opinion and perspective than concise audit of a program that wastes funds — and clearly if members of Congress have passed them through, there’s the potential for a logical support base for the program. Other items are more likely to be legitimately take criticism across party lines, and it’s easy to see that support was likely for some other aspect of a bill that passed the funding through.

Of course, any report of this sort is likely to be subjective, but the cause is legitimately noble considering the degree of waste that can be found in any bureaucracy of a considerable size. It’s why auditing and accountability commissions are so important in government and business. And the legislative process is such that there are also politically created wastes that need to be noticed and accounted for in a public manner, even if there are no legal or fiscal rules being broken.

So credit to McCain where credit is due. But some of the items are arguably both partisan and skewed. One example of this would be the Social Security Administrations payments. Some of his critiques of the programs oversight and management were fair, but there was a definite bias in his focus; he argued that “with billions of dollars mistakenly going out the door, it’s a wonder we’re facing a national debt crisis.”

Another less-than perfect example from the report would be the “$15,000 for EPA to study pollution from your backyard BBQ.” This is a catchy and infuriating title, to be sure — and the entire report is structured to be a little bit ridiculous and humorous, from the photos chosen, to the “WANTED BY THE AMERICAN TAXPAYER” in all red across the top of the document.

Emission standards are investigated across all sorts of industries, and there is a legitimate government interest in controlling factors of climate change and air pollution that contributes to health problems in the U.S.. And despite the simplified description of the funds’ use — given to the University of California to study not only outdoor propane use, but also other outdoor emitters seen in the average home. Any product used en mass has the propensity to offer a route to reduced emissions, and small changes build toward greater cumulative effects.

It’s like saying that car manufacturers shouldn’t spend what can actually be a great deal of money to test each individual component of a car for safety. A single tiny piece of metal may not seem important, but it’s the cumulative impact that is of concern. It’s easy to make almost any small project seem ridiculous if we looked at each piecemeal project, instead of the overall picture. Subjectivity comes up again with support for the performing arts, critiquing money put toward the National Endowment for the Arts, including *gasp* the “many ‘adult’ themed puppet shows on the festival calendar.”

On the other hand, some projects truly do look rather ridiculous without much help — for example, the dog bite prevention website the NIH put $390,798 toward despite a plethora of other preventative resources. This was featured in McCain’s report alongside a number of other legitimate concerns on how departments handled their spending — another example being the catfish inspection program, and his point about the Endangered Species Act and the $50,000 that went to “research the bomb-detecting capabilities of elephants.”

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