Wasting your millions on romance and 3D pizza

Tim Lee / MCT

Sophisticated politicians and journalists find the movie Dave simplistic. The same is said of Sen. Tom Coburn when he has his annual moment of life imitating art.

Once a year, Coburn plays Murray Blum, the boring accountant in the movie who uses basic common sense to cut the federal budget as a favor to his friend, a presidential impersonator, played by Kevin Kline. He needs to find $650 million to keep a homeless shelter open. Murray shows him that the money can readily be found in wasteful and unquestioned government programs such as one that absurdly aims to make Americans feel better about their cars.

There are hundreds of such programs tucked away in various agency budgets and, like his fictional doppelganger, Coburn finds the most egregious ones. “We’ve had the Defense Department and people in the other nondefense discretionary departments screaming ‘the cupboard is bare,'” Coburn said. “There’s nothing else to cut. The fact is that just isn’t true.”

The Oklahoma senator’s “Wastebook” lists 100 of them. There’s the truly ludicrous (a $125,000 3-D pizza printer for astronauts) to the mildly ludicrous (a State Department effort to get liked on Facebook). The National Aeronautics and Space Administration spent $3 million to determine whether there was intelligent life in Congress.

And, apparently, our government doesn’t know about this newfangled thing called Google. While some of us can type in the word “infrastructure” and hit the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button, the Department of Commerce’s National Technical Information Service is spending $50 million to look up easily accessible stuff.

Did you know you can deduct certain medical procedures if they are necessary for your job? Our irrational tax code allows brothels in Nevada to take $17.5 million in exemptions for such necessities as breast implants.

Coburn also takes on a Republican sacred cow: the Department of Everything, as he calls it, which, among other things, is studying beef jerky. This summer, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel wailed that because of the mandatory spending cuts under sequestration, “We risk fielding a force that is unprepared.”

Coburn found plenty of savings he could use to prepare it. The Pentagon is leaving 2,000 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, which cost $500,000 each, in Afghanistan to be destroyed after U.S. forces withdraw.

Then there’s the Army’s $297 million “mega-blimp,” or Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, which was intended for Afghanistan but made only one trip: a short flight over New Jersey. As spending headed toward $300 million, the military sold it to a private contractor at the fire-sale price of $301,000. Even as the National Guard is being cut by 8,000 troops, $10 million was spent on Superman movie tie-ins.

The lack of common sense is everywhere. Who green-lighted the Popular Romance Project? The National Endowment for the Humanities has given $914,000 to a study of the origins of romance. Kindle Alert: For $100, read the collected works of Danielle Steel.

Meanwhile, FBI agents are ready for their close-up. The FBI spends $1.5 million each year to educate Hollywood producers and writers on how to portray the agency. There are other signs of a lurid fascination with pop culture. The almost-bankrupt U.S. Postal Service has paid $556,000 to the futurist Faith Popcorn to envision a viable future for itself. And New York and New Jersey took $65 million in Superstorm Sandy emergency relief money to make television ads to encourage people to visit.

In all, the Wastebook chronicles $30 billion in stupid spending, enough to make sequestration unnecessary. Coburn isn’t a mindless tea party person who favors no spending, and he’s willing to gore his own ox. He just wants someone to listen when his inner Murray Blum goes through the books.

It’s a shame how only the good go home early. Coburn is abiding by the term limits he set for himself and won’t seek another term in 2016. The Pentagon won’t mind his departure, but the rest of us will miss him.

© 2013, Bloomberg News

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald


    It can happen here, if we let it

    America’s urban cores have, in many cases, been abandoned by the powerful, dissected by highways that destroy a feeling of community and neglected in the apportionment of educational opportunities. The combination of external neglect and internal dysfunction has engendered explosive conditions — an undercurrent of anger that is easily made into a combustible mixture by the use of deadly force, typically involving a white police officer and a black citizen.



    Disgusted with smarmy campaigns

    How seriously should we take the candidates on the November ballot? As seriously as they take the big issues, which is not very.

  • In My Opinion

    Ray Rice’s fans are too quick to forgive

    “I think they’re going too far with Ray Rice.”

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category