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Coburn’s ‘Wastebook’ Targets Include Mountain Lions, Sheep, Beer (Video)

Coburn Federal Spending 10 121713 445x331 Coburns Wastebook Targets Include Mountain Lions, Sheep, Beer
Coburn, pictured here unveiling the 2013 Wastebook. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Tom Coburn and his investigators have been busy in their most recent effort to unveil what they view as government waste and abuse.

The 2014 edition of the Oklahoma Republican’s annual “Wastebook” runs almost 250 pages and features more than 1,100 footnotes. It’s presumably the last such report Coburn will issue from his Senate perch, as he’s resigning his seat early at the end of the current Congress.

As in previous editions, the report highlights billions of dollars of projects that Coburn views as wasteful government spending.

“This report, the fifth annual Wastebook, gives a snapshot of just a fraction of the countless frivolous projects the government funded in the past twelve months with borrowed money and your tax dollars,” Coburn wrote in the report’s introduction. “Every year taxpayers, regardless of their personal political leanings, raise their eyebrows and shake their heads in disbelief at how billions of dollars that could be been better spent — or not spent at all — were squandered.”

Opening up the Wastebook always leads to a variety of hilarious-sounding government-funded research projects, the kind of spending that, regardless of the merits, makes good fodder for Senate floor speeches and campaign criticism, and even perhaps of late night comedians.

Take, for instance, teaching mountain lions to walk on treadmills. That was funded through an $856,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the report said. It’s not the first time exercise for animals has drawn scorn.

“Not so long ago, after all, the National Science Foundation (NSF) paid $560,000 to run a shrimp on a tiny treadmill. In fact, the federal government has raced animals, large and small on a treadmill from monkeys, to rats, and even cows and goats,” the report said.

There’s another kind of fitness featured, too — the kind offered as a benefit to certain federal workers. Coburn’s report says some Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees get access to the Vida Fitness gym adjacent to the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

“Interestingly, while exercising at a private gym by its employees was important enough for ICE to drop $400,000 on the priority, walking was not: the agency stated in its contract requirements that the gym must be less than 526 feet or one tenth of a mile from its office,” the report said. “Vida Fitness is about 360 feet from ICE’s front door.”

Many of the projects have been funded or maintained thanks to efforts of congressional appropriators and like-minded members, a group that’s frequently faced Coburn’s ridicule. One of those involves a station for sheep research in Idaho that lawmakers worked to stop from being shuttered.

“Everyone knows how much Congress loves pork, but perhaps less well-known is its affinity for mutton. Earlier this year, a congressional committee blocked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from closing down a $2 million-a-year sheep research site the agency said was no longer needed,” the report said.

Coburn explained that USDA decided that grizzly bears should have access to the land.

“That was the point when Congress stepped in, however, to insist the sheep station remain open,” the report said. “Citing an obscure provision of law giving congressional committees the ability to stop the USDA’s plans, members from Idaho, Washington, Montana and Oregon joined forces to insist the closure be halted.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., is featured in the report touting federal funding for a local upstate brewery.

“One New York company in particular, Empire Brewing, has been especially successful in growing its business, offering popular beers such as its Chocolate Mint Stout, Blueberry Ale and Empire Strikes Bock. In 2014, the brewer was given $200,000 to expand from one location in Syracuse to a second in Cazenovia, New York, where it plans to open farm and brewpub,” the report said, citing that particular grant as costing $200,000.

In that entry, Coburn criticized the Department of Agriculture’s value-added producer grant program, which is the same program that brought Secretary Tom Vilsack to New Hampshire in August for an event with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

NASA draws criticism in a few areas, with Coburn skeptical of the costs associated with the International Space Station itself, including the presence of experiments designed by students.

“Some of the other studies being conducted on the space station are designed by elementary and high school students rather than scientists. Fifteen student projects were launched to the space station in July as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP),” the report said. “While encouraging young people to take an interest in science is an important goal, the billions of dollars being borrowed to support space station science fair experiments could make a bigger impact in the lives of these and other children in many other more cost efficient ways.”

The most boring item in this year’s document comes with another unusually big price tag, some $4 billion. The report points to state and local tax coffers being bolstered by Medicaid dollars paid to facilities like nursing homes.

“Congress scaled back the use of this practice in the ’90s, but the loophole continues to yield billions of dollars in unintended federal spending for states. In 2014 alone, its estimated cost is $4-5 billion annually,” the report said. “All Americans should have access to quality health care, but the provider tax gimmick is indicative of Congress’ ineptitude in addressing the real issues facing the Medicaid program.”

There’s no telling yet if another enterprising senator will take on the task of maintaining the Wastebook after Coburn bids farewell to the chamber, but one thing is for sure: Coburn is leaving plenty of fodder behind.

“While I have offered hundreds of amendments to stop stupid spending, most have been soundly defeated. Perhaps there is no better example of Congress’s upside down priorities than the Senate overwhelmingly rejected an amendment to defund the infamous bridge to nowhere in Alaska,” Coburn wrote. “Under the current Senate leadership, amendments are no longer even permitted, ending any hope of actually cutting waste through the legislative process.”

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