Over the last 11 years America’s federal budget has nearly tripled, the size of government has doubled, and our country has lost its AAA rating for the first time. During his time in the House during the 1990s and as a Senator since 2004, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has stood in opposition to the policies that led to these dire straits. Whether it has been highlighting bipartisan hypocrisy, opposing earmarks, aiming to cut hundreds of billions in wasteful spending, or reforming entitlement and defense spending, Senator Coburn has been a rare and consistent proponent of a smaller, affordable federal government.
One of the Senator’s most effective contributions to this fight has been his many reports on what he has called “fraud, waste, abuse & stupidity.” In the most recent of these reports, released on June 06, 2012, the Senator highlighted nearly $700 billion in a little-noticed kind of wasteful federal spending: appropriated but unused funds. The report closely examines $70 billion of this funding, and finds funding for everything from schools and HIV/AIDS programs to bridges and DOJ bulletproof vests simply sitting unused.
The Senator sat down with me for a phone interview yesterday to discuss the report and its implications for the nation’s fiscal future.
Dustin Siggins: Senator, first, thanks for your time. Second, I have to say, the report is depressing…
Senator Coburn: The truth hurts, and I want the American people to tell Congress to stop wasting their money.
DS: The report examines $70 billion that have been appropriated but unused, including $1 billion the Government Accountability Office found in Fiscal Year 2011, and cites $687 billion in total appropriated but unused/unallocated funds going into FY 2013?. How many fiscal years does this cover? What is the importance of this report to the average American?
Senator Coburn: I can’t tell you the full amount, but I can tell you that money from the 1996 Olympics is still locked in, for example. And that was 16 years ago.
The importance of this report is that it highlights just how bad oversight and accountability are in Washington. For example, $7.5 billion in earmark transportation funding that is never going to be spent has been appropriated. It shows the incompetence of Congress, the incompetence of the process, and the incompetence of the bureaucracy. The federal government is so big it doesn’t know what it’s doing. People may have right intentions, but we’re incompetent because it’s so big.
I made the same point made in my book – [DS: I recently reviewed Senator Coburn’s book “The Debt Bomb.” See the review here.] we’re bankrupt, and we have a government that is twice the size the size it was in 2001. This report and the other 50 or 60 reports my office has released show my office knows more about the government than the OMB, the Senate, or anyone else in D.C. We have a Homeland Security report coming out, I think next week, and a job training program report as well. We have 47 job-training programs in the federal government that cost $19 billion, and all but three overlap. Let me ask you a question: Why do we need 47 job-training programs? Why not have one, and make it work, since none of them work?
DS: Well, I know my father, who has owned businesses for 31 years, would never allow that kind of inefficiency. Reports like this are why he may not vote in the fall.
Your report cites the following two examples of unused funds:
- Maryland imposed a new sales tax to provide services to thousands of severely disabled residents languishing on waiting lists for the care, while the state’s Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) left unspent $38 million, including $12 million of federal funds. The new tax raised $15 million—less than half the amount the agency had sitting unused.”
- More than one in four of the nation’s bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Yet, $13 billion in federal funds earmarked by Congress for highway projects idles unspent.
Are these funds that are sitting in local and state bank accounts waiting to be used, or do they sit in federal agencies awaiting permission to be released to recipients?
Senator Coburn: I can’t tell you that one, but Atlanta funding is in the Olympic Committee. It hasn’t been pulled back because it was earmarked. We need specific things changed in the law to pull it back. The Maglev train in Nevada spends $47 million, I think, on a train that’s never going to be built. You can find the exact number in the report. [DS: The report says Congress earmarked money for the Maglev train in 2005, but also that “Congress placed $45 million in limbo forever by repeatedly making drafting errors in legislation.”]
DS: Your office has released numerous reports that each show somewhere between millions and hundreds of billions in waste, fraud, abuse, stupidity and duplication. Yet in the long run it’s going to be entitlement spending and interest on the debt that really brings the country to its fiscal knees, regardless of how we spend, or eliminate, every other dollar in the federal budget. Two questions: First, should Americans have any faith that Congress can cut even this dollar-large but percent-small amount from inefficient appropriations, and second, will elimination of these dollars even make a real difference in the long run financial future of the nation?
Senator Coburn: It’s gonna happen [cutting spending]. It can happen in one of two ways: The American people can stop sending career politicians to D.C. and send new people to Congress. Or we can be treated like Greece, where people tell us how we will spend. I can’t tell you how long we have, but I’d say it’s between two and five years. We are the least-wilted rose in the vase, so we will last longer than two years, because we will be the last place to invest as Europe disintegrates, but we won’t have much time. Using Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, we are $150 trillion in the hole.
It’s not about the election in November. This is about showing that we are serious about our spending problems by cutting here and there, where we can, and saving Medicare by changing it, and saving Social Security by changing it. It’s also about modernizing the Pentagon and having strength through streamlining.
DS: According to MSNBC, the President is going to be making an economic speech tomorrow [Thursday] that will likely focus on blaming George Bush for the problems his Presidency has faced, and compare Mitt Romney to Bush. When it comes to this report, has the problem worsened, gotten better, or stayed the same between the two Presidents? In other words, while the problem is clearly systemic, is it also a partisan problem?
Senator Coburn: It’s a bipartisan problem. You had GOP in solid control for four years, the Democrats for three with a filibuster-proof Senate. Right now, the bets and history are against us. What’s the history of republics? They die when people realize they can get more than they pay in, and that’s where we are. That’s why I wrote the book. The answer may not be my solutions, but that’s why we can compromise. First, though, we have to agree the problem exists.
When 1 out of 2 college students can’t get a job, we are in trouble. When 401Ks have half their purchasing power of a few years ago, people 45 to 65. Now’s the time to stop pointing fingers in Washington, and those who do point fingers are career politicians looking to win elections instead of doing what’s best for the country.
DS: I’ve seen in some headlines that Majority Leader Reid may be prioritizing boxing legislation over passing a budget, holding Attorney General Holder accountable for Fast and Furious, eliminating this kind of low-hanging waste in the budget, etc. Is this a gimmick for his constituents? Or is he seriously doing this?
Senator Coburn: It shows one of three things: First, we shouldn’t have authority over boxing. It’s a state issue. Second, it shows whether or not competency is leading the Senate. Third, it shows a lack of prioritization. While 5,000 people may care about the legislation Senator Reid is talking about, we have millions of older people who will be impacted if Medicare goes bankrupt, and millions of younger people who will have our debt on their shoulders.
DS: I’d like to shift away from the report to your fellow Senate Judiciary Committee Member, Senator Cornyn (R-TX), who made news yesterday with his blunt comments to Attorney General Holder calling for the Attorney General’s resignation. Were you in the hearing when this took place?
Senator Coburn: I watched it on TV; I was meeting with constituents.
DS: Can I get a reaction to the remarks?
Senator Coburn: I didn’t vote for Holder. I have problems with his honesty and integrity and what he has done in the past. Additionally, I think the DOJ is mismanaged with regard to its grants. Neither he nor his predecessor fixed that, so this is not a partisan thing.
He has not been straightforward on Fast & Furious, and it’s a big deal. Having political people report to him is basically “wink, nod, and go back to sleep.” We need an independent investigation. We need congressional subpoenas, and we need a good clean look at what went on. He has not provided that.