New 'fish' study fueling debate over government waste

This is a rush transcript from "Your World," February 24, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

NEIL CAVUTO, HOST: Hook, line, and sinker.

Taxpayers are on the hook yet again. Move over, pal. From a half-million dollars to study shrimp on a treadmill, remember that one, to millions more for a catfish inspection program, and now $175,000 to study the swimming abilities of fish. Who knew?

Welcome, everybody. I'm Neil Cavuto.

And the Fish and Wildlife Service now offering a grant to conduct fish swimming experiments and to analyze fish swimming video. The study expected to focus on the impact of climate change. Apparently, some fish might be swimming differently.

Reportedly, the Labor Department reportedly sending $100,000 to promote a book club for its centennial celebration, also reportedly using some funds to hire one of the mascots from the Washington Nationals as part of that celebration. Hundreds of thousands of dollars may sound like small fish to you, but when you're 17 trillion bucks in the hole, they do not to Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn.

Senator, we get these kind of spending details out every few months, and people just shake their head, but it adds up to millions, upon hundreds of millions upon billions. And we all just shrug our shoulder and say, there they go again.

SEN. TOM COBURN, R-OKLA.: Well, Neil, this is a problem of leadership.

It's set at the top by creating an environment that says we're not going to spend money that is not absolutely necessary. And when we spend it, we're going to have good justification for it, and, by the way, when we do spend it, we're going to make sure it's competitively bid, and we're going to listen to the career employees when they see the kind of waste. This is where most of this came from, career employees.

And so we have a lot of federal workers that know what is happening that don't like it. And then they're treated harshly by the departments they work for, for raising the question about it. And so it has to stop -- start with leadership. It has to start with agency heads. It has to start with department heads.

And we just don't have it. And it -- we didn't have it under Republican administrations and we don't have it under this one. And until we get that, we're going to continue to spend money that we don't have on things that we do not absolutely need.

CAVUTO: You know, it is an old argument under both parties, as you say, Senator, but I always wonder how they come up with some of these specific studies, like studying fish and how they swim. Who came up with that? Who said, you know what, I just have a feeling they're swimming differently?


COBURN: Well, the point is, is there may be a good scientific basis to want to study that. So let's say -- let's assume there is.

Is now the time to spend that kind of money, when we had a $620 billion deficit last year and we're borrowing money and we're going to be paying interest on that money. Or should we wait until a better time?


COBURN: That's...


CAVUTO: But you mentioned that $620 billion deficit, Senator. That's why they say, well, we can now because that deficit is a lot smaller than it was. It used to be a trillion dollars-plus five years running...

COBURN: But...


CAVUTO: ... and now we have got it down to home run territory. What do you say to that?

COBURN: And it's going right back to a trillion dollars, according to the CBO.

And so the point is, the point is, it has to be we lead by not spending money that we don't absolutely have to spend. And so what if you didn't spend all your budget and it goes away? The point is, is, we're going to be in trouble. We're already in trouble. We just don't feel it yet.

But the cost and consequences to this is going to be felt tremendously by those least capable of bearing the burden of that cost, and that's those less fortunate in our society. Because the things that are going to get wrecked when this all comes falling down is the social safety net.

And so leadership matters. And if you had an administration that says we're going to focus on not spending a penny that we don't absolutely have to -- at some time when I get a chance to visit with you, I will tell you a story about a great colonel in the Air Force who saved about $120 million just on one small air base and then got kind of booted around because he didn't spend the money.

CAVUTO: Sure. Sure. I see that all the time.

Senator, thank you very much.

COBURN: You bet. Good to see you.

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