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Tom Coburn Lambasts Another ‘Bridge to Nowhere’

Updated: 8:44 p.m.

Sen. Tom Coburn thinks he’s found another “Bridge to Nowhere” — and unlike that one in Alaska, this one has no pragmatic use.

The Oklahoma Republican released his annual “Wastebook” on Tuesday, outlining 100 ways that he says the government squanders more than $18 billion in taxpayer money. For instance, Coburn says the federal government plans to spend roughly $520,000 through the National Historic Covered Bridge Preservation Program to repair a covered bridge in Greene County, Ohio.

Unlike many other covered bridges, it is not used for vehicular travel. The original “Bridge to Nowhere” would have connected Ketchikan, Alaska, to a neighboring island.

There may be a historic preservation argument for maintaining the bridge, but Coburn wants people to ask questions about federal priorities.

“The problem in Washington is politicians are very specific about what we should fund but not specific about what we should cut. As a result, we are chasing robotic squirrels and countless other low-priority projects over a fiscal cliff,” Coburn said, in reference to a project funded through the National Science Foundation.

Coburn uses material from his reports throughout the year to try to get the Senate to adopt minuscule — but symbolic — budget cuts, often by offering amendments to unrelated legislation.

The dollar values of individual projects range from very small, relative to federal spending, to quite large. No. 86 on the list is $25,000 in funding from the Agriculture Department to the Alabama Watermelon Association to pay costs associated with the state’s watermelon queen.

“The 2012 queen was crowned at the association’s annual conference held earlier this year at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino,” the report says. “Four beautiful contestants participated in evening gown and seed-spitting competitions to win the crown.”

USDA funds have supported a variety of marketing programs for agricultural products, such as the much better known “Pork. The Other White Meat” campaign.

Projects that generate laughs will make headlines, but Coburn also uses his report to critique some facets of government management in even the most mundane areas.

“Clipping coupons, comparing prices, buying in bulk, and even shopping on double coupon days, many Americans are doing everything they can to save a penny wherever they can to stretch a dollar further during these difficult economic times,” the report says. “The stewards of taxpayers’ dollars in Washington unfortunately are not being as thrifty.”

Coburn highlights misuse and abuse of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps. The report expresses concern about SNAP marketing campaigns and benefits going to those making more money than allowed by program rules. It also warns of people using SNAP to buy food that provides little nutritional value.

“In California, many beneficiaries use food stamps to purchase not so nutritious fast food at Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Dominoes Pizza,” the “Wastebook” says.

Coburn has dissented from some Republicans in demonstrating a willingness to cut military spending and eliminate targeted tax provisions, as demonstrated through his work as one of the “gang of six” working to develop a deficit reduction package and his vote in support of the findings of the 2010 fiscal commission led by former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles.

In the “Wastebook,” Coburn offers projects he defines as waste in both areas, including a tax benefit for paper producers known as the “black liquor” credit that senators have tried repeatedly to kill. That’s thanks in no small part to senators from states that produce paper products, who want to preserve the benefit for home industries.

The report also questions why several professional sports leagues, including the NFL, are considered nonprofit trade associations for tax purposes, reducing potential tax revenue.

Coburn may face some of his most vociferous criticism from the defense sector. The report highlights cost overruns in the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program, which is being built by two separate teams of contractors led by General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin.

“They will be a major investment for the country in the coming century. Yet, a decision by the Navy to ask two different companies to build the LCS will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions dollars over the lifetime of the program,” the report says, noting that the Navy reported the contracting strategy would reduce costs.

The future of any of these programs may be debated on merits, but Coburn reserves his harshest judgment for Congress itself, suggesting that a lack of productivity on Capitol Hill represents its own kind of waste.

“Congress approved every cent spent to fund the projects outlined in this report and did nothing to stop any of these expenditures. In fact, in many cases members of Congress actually took credit for the projects with no shame,” the report says. “All of the outrageous and wasteful contents of this report were made possible by either the action or lack of action of Congress, earning it the well-deserved but unwanted distinction as the biggest waste of taxpayer money in 2012.”

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