It’s been a minor holiday tradition for those of us who still care about government waste to peruse Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul’s list of government waste, either for the year or just for autumn.
And these days, much like just about every year since Calvin Coolidge was hanging out in 1600 Pennsylvania, the government has taken a lot of your money and spent it in absurd ways.
This is assuming, of course, you don’t have a vested interest in bringing Serbian cheese up to global standards, or spending half a million on a self-cleaning toilet in a single D.C. Metro station.
Here’s a basic primer on Paul’s waste reports for those of you who don’t necessarily grok the purpose: Every so often, the libertarian-leaning Kentuckian highlights a few examples of the most absurd forms of government largesse.
Last year, he noted your money got spent on studying the mating habits of quails when they were high on cocaine (so wish that were a joke, but I’m not that funny), promoting Egyptian tourism and sending foreign aid to China — a country which we’re currently borrowing heavily from to pay this debt, as you might be aware of.
In Paul’s fall 2019 report, he singled out the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority as the biggest offender.
The agency is expected to suck up $153 million in taxpayer dollars for the 2020 fiscal year despite the fact that “Metro’s routine service outages, delays, incomprehensible policy choices, and mismanagement of funds has led to, as WAMU reported earlier this year, the lowest ridership in almost 20 years.”
Paul’s report cited a Washington Examiner article titled “Let’s face it: Washington, DC’s Metro is the worst in the world.”
“The Washington subway system has been so bad that it derives a benefit from low expectations. Riders are let down so often that higher fares for worse service is what they have come to expect,” Jason Russell wrote.
“They’ve become world-famous. At the International Transport Forum this month in Germany, Washington’s system was used as a cautionary tale.”
“One transit expert said it is ‘a hell of a problem,’ while another said it suffered from ‘poor governance and poor attention to long-term investment.’ A third expert called Metro leaders ‘cowards’ for not raising more revenue with fare increases or tax hikes, the Washington Post reported.”
Two specific incidents of waste stood out in Paul’s report. In one, instead of fixing the problem, WMATA spent $400,000 on a PR offensive called “Back2Good,” which did little to get the Metro system back to good but raised significant questions among media and ridership.
Quoth The Washington Post: “some were surprised at Metro’s decision to spend six-figures on a PR campaign during a budget crisis, when the agency [was] considering raising fares and reducing service to offset a $290 million shortfall. Wouldn’t that money be better spent on repairs and infrastructure, they asked?”
Well, maybe they could have offset it if they hadn’t spent even more on maintaining a self-cleaning toilet they no longer know the location of.
In what the WMATA’s inspector general called “Operation Golden Potty,” the agency spent roughly half-a-million dollars from 2003 to 2017 maintaining a self-cleaning toilet at the Huntington Metro Station — although they can’t really be sure of the exact cost because, as Paul’s report noted, “Metro lost invoices for 2007, 2012, 2013, and 2014.”
The Metro swears the toilet was necessary since, after the 9/11 attacks, the Huntington Metro Station’s then-current bathrooms were apparently security concerns. At least the new self-cleaning bathroom made riders not want to use the loo at all, since “the toilet was not user-friendly, a documented experience shared by the news shows — though it did excel at providing some background music for users.”
“To top it off, the half-million-dollar toilet sat broken and abandoned in the Huntington Station from 2017 to early 2019,” the report stated.
“Metro contracted with a private company to clean and maintain the self- cleaning toilet but canceled the contract in 2017. While Metro had plans to move the toilet to a different station, it ended up decommissioning and removing the facility in early 2019. FSO staff inquired about the current whereabouts of the toilet, but Metro was unable to provide an answer.”
At least that money was wasted closer to home.
In Serbia, “USAID spent part of a $22 million ‘Sustainable Local Development Project’ training the staff at the Regional Center for Agricultural Development (RCAD) in Sjenica, Serbia, to follow the cheese standards of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and help producers adopt best practices.”
Moreover, there’s no doubt the children of Afghanistan need textbooks, and USAID spending $34 million on that might not seem so bad.
Unfortunately, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said that “[p]rincipals and teachers at a quarter of the schools inspected stated, ‘that the books were no longer in usable condition’” and that there were “book quality deficiencies, such as, loose or blank pages, misspellings, and low quality paper.”
The inspector general found that “five storage facilities held about 154,000 textbooks” and that “[m]anagers at four out of the five facilities stated that they had no plan to distribute the books in the near future.”
Another $300,000 was spent on Model United Nations competitions in Afghanistan, because clearly, the students who haven’t been distributed low-quality textbooks need to be taught how to be Model U.N. geeks, instead. The competitions are held in English, which only 6 percent of Afghans can speak.
There was also the fact that the National Institutes of Health “decided to spend $4,658,865 over several years to study the connection between drinking alcohol, hurting yourself or somebody else, and winding up in the ER.,” according to the report.
The conclusion was that “[c]ountries with high DDP [detrimental drinking pattern] are at higher risk of injury from most causes at a given level of consumption, while countries with low restrictiveness of alcohol policy are at higher risk of injury at lower levels of consumption and at higher risk of traffic injuries at high levels of consumption.”
Or, with a slightly lower word count: duh.
There was also money for a Bob Dylan statue outside the U.S. Embassy in Mozambique and more for hooking Zebrafish on nicotine, which at least beats quails and coke.
However, the research was conducted in London at a cost of $700,000.
So why do we belabor this, aside from getting “Bah Humbug, now that’s too strong! / ‘Cause it is my favorite holiday” out of your head?
Republicans are still in control of the White House and were, up until January of this year, in control of both houses of Congress. We tell ourselves that the GOP is the best vehicle to reign in government spending — and it is, when you look a some of what the Democrats are proposing.
But that isn’t good enough.
If we can’t stop foolish omnibus bills from shoveling ever more debt on future generations in order to prevent government shutdowns, we can at least demand that some kind of apparatus be put in place that starts to end the kind of vulgar horse-trading and chronically low standards for government-run institutions that lead to taxpayer money being wasted like this.
I’m not some millennial grandpa out on the pavement who’s complaining about the government, pretending that if we stopped spending money on self-cleaning toilets at Metro stations, Bob Dylan statues, foreign aid and PBS funding, our debt problems would disappear — or even be reduced slightly.
I don’t think Rand Paul is, either, although he’s somewhat closer to Abe Simpson status than I am, age-wise.
However, this is an opportunity to start thinking in a bipartisan way about waste and spending. If we start questioning the kind of service we’re getting for the money we spend on the WMATA, if we start asking whether our good intentions in Afghanistan matter when $34 million in textbooks are unused or nigh unusable, if we wonder how many Bob Dylan puns a man must make before we consider whether or not statues of him outside of our embassies are really necessary, then we take a small step toward fiscal responsibility.
And, if the GOP isn’t willing to start the effort, conservatives need to hold them accountable.
Quite frankly, that accountability is a long time in coming. But as the Chinese say, the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is today. The third-best time isn’t actually a time but it’s funding a study regarding what we could have done to plant trees twenty years ago.
Unfortunately, we’re not even willing to settle for second-best.
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