This is one of those strange little stories that wash up in a remote corner of the federal government and, once lodged in place, never seem to go away. Back in 2011 I published a short piece on the pressing issue of government catfish inspections. As of the last agriculture bill, the USDA began inspecting imported catfish, even though the FDA was already doing inspections on all seafood. This duplication of effort and cost got one Arizona Senator up in arms.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has been digging into this proposal since March, calling it, “nothing more than a protectionist tactic funded at taxpayers’ expense.” Speaking as one of the few isolationists in the crowd, I’m all for a good protectionist tactic now and then, but this is a major expenditure of money going to no discernible purpose. Of all the industries in the country that face challenges in the modern era, catfish production doesn’t exactly leap to the top of the list.

As the linked article demonstrates, repeated and extensive testing of catfish, both domestic and imported, have resulted in such low levels of contamination in each that it’s rated as a low-risk food. These new layers of regulation will initially cost 30 million dollars of wasteful spending to taxpayers, adding up to hundreds of millions over the years to follow.

Well, that’s pretty much exactly what happened, and the very same Senator McCain is still chasing that bunny.

The farm bill has a reputation and it’s not a good one.

Every five years, lawmakers pass the omnibus legislation renewing and setting agricultural, nutritional, conservation, and forestry policy. It’s unwieldy and often assailed for perpetuating arcane, outdated, and wasteful provisions. And on Tuesday, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and John McCain, R-Ariz., plan to target one such program: an Agriculture Department catfish-inspection program that would cost $14 million a year in wasteful spending, they say…

Repeal the provisions that set up the new program, GAO recommended, and the government would save about $14 million a year. Doing so is “a matter of common sense,” Shaheen said in a statement. The amendment she and McCain plan to file “will help eliminate excess spending and save tens of millions of taxpayer dollars,” she said.

Why am I still talking about this story? Well, on the one hand, it’s got a lot of obvious snark potential, given the elements of slimy fish, slimy politicians and wasteful spending. But it’s really not a joke, and that’s the point I wanted to make. Yes, the amount of money in question is yet another of those items which is considered a “rounding error” in terms of the federal budget. But as we’ve discussed before, how many of these types of problems are buried in the mountain of bureaucratic red tape? To paraphrase what the man once said, ten million here, ten million there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

How many politicians who were either running for President or legislators who wanted to be involved in budgeting have promised us that they would “take a fine tooth comb” to the budget and clean things up? Obviously nobody has come through on that promise. And when they try, each and every expensive boondoggle seems to have at least one defender who cut a deal with some donor to make sure that their little reward stays on the books. And as long as that doesn’t change we’re never going to climb out of this hole.