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Coburn’s Wastebook: It’s a start

Posted by Richard on December 18, 2013

Back in September, Nancy Pelosi claimed there was nothing left to cut in the federal budget:

“The cupboard is bare. There’s no more cuts to make. It’s really important that people understand that,” Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, said in an interview broadcast Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

That should have been PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year. (“If you like your health care plan, you can keep it” should have been their Lie of the Year in 2009 or 2010 when it was fresh, but back then they were busy calling Obamacare critics liars.)

If Pelosi’s claim didn’t immediately strike you as patently absurd — or if it did, but you want to get fired up by some of the evidence to the contrary — check out Sen. Tom Coburn’s 177-page “Wastebook 2013,” available for online reading or download at Scribd. (Don’t let the table of contents fool you. For some reason it’s truncated to the first 10 examples of government waste; the book catalogs 100.) It’s certainly not an exhaustive catalog of all the crap that’s still in the federal cupboard. I’m sure it could be expanded ten-fold and still not be exhaustive. But the Senator and his staff can’t spend all their time on this annual project. It’s a good start. The waste it documents totals $30 billion.

One of my favorite (if that’s the right word) examples of wasteful spending is the Commerce Department’s “let me Google that for you” agency (#8 on p. 16 of the Wastebook). Other government agencies and departments spend millions of dollars a year buying copies of “government-funded scientific, technical, engineering, and business-related information” and reports from Commerce’s National Technical Information Service (NTIS).  But (footnotes omitted):

Required by law to be largely self-sustaining, NTIS charges other federal agencies to access its collection of reports. However, a November 2012 review of the office by GAO uncovered that about three-quarters of the reports in the NTIS archives were available from other public sources. Specifically, “GAO estimated that approximately 621,917, or about 74 percent, of the 841,502 reports were readily available from one of the other four publicly available sources GAO searched.”
GAO explains, “The source that most often had the reports GAO was searching for was another website located at” In addition, reports could be found on the website of the issuing federal department, the Government Printing Office’s website, or

Two others are worth bringing to the attention of all those hawkish conservatives and Republicans who sound like Nancy Pelosi when it comes to the Defense Department, insisting that too much has already been cut and the military cupboard is bare.

First, there’s #7 in the Wastebook (p. 14). The US is winding down operations in Afghanistan. What to do with all that expensive equipment we sent there? (footnotes omitted)

The military has decided to simply destroy more than $7 billion worth of equipment rather than sell it or ship it back home.
“We have a lot of stuff there. Inevitably, we overbought,” stated Gordon Adams, a professor at American University and former defense official in the Clinton administration. “We always do when we go to war.”
Why just not leave the excess equipment in country for use by the Afghan military? A major concern is that Afghanistan’s forces would be unable to maintain it. Moreover, there is worry the defense industry might suffer if the Pentagon unloads tons of used equipment on the market at vastly reduced prices. This should be viewed as market correction and a positive outcome of the drawdown, not a reason to send valuable equipment to the scrap heap.

Among the items to be shredded are thousands of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, which cost half a million dollars apiece.

Then there’s #10 (p. 20), which is also vaguely Afghanistan-related (footnotes omitted):

In an era of technological advances that make the machines of war smaller and more agile, the Army spent three and a half years developing a football field-sized blimp that would provide continuous surveillance of the Afghan battlefield – called by some an “unblinking eye.”
In 2013, however, the Army closed the blimp’s eye forever when it brought the project to a halt after spending nearly $300 million. The Army sold the airship back to the contractor that was building it for just $301,000.

The unmanned blimp was supposed to be able to fly above 20,000 ft. and remain aloft for 21 days at a time, but was grossly overweight and never came close to meeting those criteria. Not to mention far behind schedule and over budget.

In addition to the cost and schedule mishaps, some noted how the blimp had an uncertain mission with the Afghan war winding down.
It was not the first airship to be grounded by the military, however.
According to Defense News, “The Defense Department has spent more than $1 billion on at least nine programs in recent years, yet the military owns just one working airship, a piloted Navy blimp called MZ-3A, which is used for research.”

There are 97 more examples, and I’ve only skimmed a bit over half of them. Some have price tags in the millions or billions, while others are “merely” one or two hundred thousand dollars. But to paraphrase the late Sen. Dirksen, a hundred thousand  here, there, and in tens of thousands of other places adds up to real money.

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