Oversight

Coburn releases latest 'Wastebook'

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) released his Wastebook 2012 on Oct. 16 to point out what he considers questionable government spending, including $1.5 billion in taxpayer-funded cell phones and nearly $1 million to research what astronauts could eat on Mars.

No. 1 on the list though is “the most unproductive and unpopular Congress in modern history.” It cost taxpayers $132 million, but did little. Lawmakers passed 61 bills that eventually became law in 2012.

“Whether it was failing to hold oversight hearings, pass laws, cut unnecessary spending, or simply cast votes on amendments, the U.S. Congress let taxpayers down in 2012,” Coburn wrote.

The Senate specifically has cast fewer votes in 2012 thus far than any year in decades. More than 20 of the 100 senators—Republicans and Democrats alike—have not had a single amendment considered on the Senate floor.
 
He also hammered on congressional committees. The Senate Budget Committee has failed to produce a budget in more than 1,200 days, and to Coburn, the Senate Finance Committee has done little in 2012, approving only 11 legislative measures. The Senate and the House small business committees have not done much either, leading the way with the fewest approved bills, according to Coburn. The Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee held only four hearings this year and approved only three measures. One of those measures was to authorize its expenditures. The House Small Business Committee held 31 hearings and reported three bills, according to Coburn. The senator noted House did significantly more than the Senate committee but less than other House committees.

“Despite the importance of small business to our nation’s economy and their recent struggles, the small business committees of both chambers tied for first place as the committee approving the least amount of legislation in 2012,” Coburn wrote.

In reaction, Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), chairman of the Small Business Committee, said Coburn’s numbers are not correct. Committee members introduced 19 bills and marked up 11 bills in 2012, he said. The committee also used its oversight jurisdiction to hold 80 hearings on all sorts of issues that affect small companies. There were even nine field hearings. It has also exercised oversight affecting more than 20 agencies, in addition to hearings, Graves said.

“The committee will continue to measure progress in the fight for small businesses more by the content of the hearings and results of oversight efforts, than faulty statistics cited in Dr. Coburn’s report,” Graves said in a statement. “The committee takes seriously the obligation to usefully fight for small businesses, often on tax and regulatory issues that burden small businesses needlessly. We’re proud of that record.”

The Senate committee did not respond to Coburn’s findings.

Further down the list of 100 wasteful expenditures, Coburn found NASA continuing to pay for an “unused, outdated database.” The Lessons Learned Information System cost the taxpayer $771,000 in 2012. NASA project managers can document their best practices and other information gained from completing their projects in the LLIS. However, they often do not.

During an audit of the database, only 16 of 28 project managers told the inspector general they used it during their projects’ acquisition life cycle, with the usage varying widely by project. Managers also do not routinely share they have learned. NASA officials once required managers to contribute to it, but no longer. Only 12 of 28 managers contributed to it, according the IG’s audit, which was released in March.

Moreover, managers said the LLIS was “outdated, is not user friendly, and does not contain information relevant to their projects,” the IG wrote. Managers also said they had pressing matters to deal with instead of adding to the database.

“Taken together, the lack of consistent input and usage has led to the marginalization of LLIS as a useful tool for project managers,” the IG wrote.

Coburn cited the audit report in the Wastebook 2012. NASA did not respond to a request for a comment.

In the audit, the IG recommended officials determine whether or not the LLIS was worth the cost. NASA officials replied that one of NASA’s overarching and fundamental purposes is to create knowledge. The database is one way that NASA captures knowledge.

“Based on the LLIS’ utilization metrics, collected each month, this investment is providing a tremendous return on investment,” wrote Michael Ryschkewitsch, NASA’s chief engineer.

 More examples of waste:

Out-of-this-world Martian food tasting – (Hawaii) $947,000
NASA is studying what food astronauts could eat on Mars, by simulating a Mars outpost at a barren location in Hawaii.

USDA’s caviar dreams – (Idaho) $300,000
USDA gave a grant to a caviar producer in Idaho for marketing.

A penny made is two pennies wasted – (Department of the Treasury) $70 million
Cutting penny production could save at least $70 million annually. Manufacturing a penny now costs 2.4 cents each.

Flushing down taxpayer dollars – (Michigan) $10,000
Transportation Department dollars are used in Michigan to buy 400 talking urinal cakes to fight drunk driving.

Contracts for trophies and typewriters – (General Services Administration) $24 million
GSA has been maintaining contracts for obsolete products that no one buys, an administrative function that costs $24 million a year. (However, Acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini has been actively trying to eliminate those.)

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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