Published October 16, 2012
What do robotic squirrels, menus for Martian meals and a musical about climate change have in common?
They've all been made possible with taxpayer assistance, according to the latest survey of government waste put out by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Known simply as the Waste Book, the report is a watchlist of eye-opening expenditures, which Coburn blames on a "let them eat caviar" attitude in Washington -- at a time when "23 million of our fellow Americans do not have good jobs," Coburn notes.
Coburn, while chiding the agencies that spend this money for their "lack of judgment," said Congress is also to blame for failing in its oversight duties.
"We're running trillion-dollar deficits. The way you get rid of trillion-dollar deficits -- a billion at a time," Coburn told Fox News on Tuesday.
Here are some highlights of the report:
-- Though skeptics say there's no such thing as a free cellphone or service funded by the federal government, Coburn's report shows otherwise. It estimates that taxpayers are subsidizing phone service at a cost of nearly $1.5 billion a year. Though the roots of the program can be traced back to an effort in the 1930s to make sure all Americans had access to telecommunications, it has morphed into a program that provided free cell service to some 16,500,000 participants last year.
-- Though NASA has no plans or budget for any manned spaceflights to Mars, the agency spends about $1 million each year on developing "the Mars menu." It's an effort to come up with a variety of food that humans could eat one day on Mars.
-- A $325,000 grant for the development of "Robosquirrel" - a robotic rodent designed to test the interaction between rattlesnakes and squirrels.
-- An estimated $70 million loss for producing pennies. According to the Waste Book, "The cost to produce a penny in 2012 is more than two times its actual value." After the pennies are manufactured and sold at face value, taxpayers are left to cover the loss.
-- The report spotlights widespread abuse of the food stamp system -- including an exotic dancer who earned more than $85,000 a year in tips, but also collected nearly $1,000 a month in food stamps while spending $9,000 during that time period on "cosmetic enhancements."
-- Nearly $700,000 from the National Science Foundation to a New York-based theater company so it could develop a musical about climate change and biodiversity. "The Great Immensity" opened in Kansas City this year. Along with the songs one reviewer described as sounding like "a Wikipedia entry set to music," the audience was also able to experience "flying monkey poop."
In all, the 2012 Waste Book report details 100 examples totaling nearly $19 billion. Coburn acknowledges that's a drop in the bucket in contrast to the overall federal deficit, which tops $16 trillion, but he says the items are snapshots of the bigger problem.
"Would you agree with Washington that these represent national priorities, or would you conclude these reflect the out-of-touch and out-of-control spending threatening to bankrupt our nation’s future?" he said.