Celebrating 25 years of Making Government Work (Better)

Weekly WastebasketCelebrating 25 years of Making Government Work (Better)A quarter century of watch dog successes.

We’ve been in the watch-doggery game for coming up on 25 years now. We’ve seen presidents come and go, shifting majorities in Congress, earmarked projects toppled, fought for a government that operates within its means, and called out billions in taxpayer dollars wasted. We will be celebrating our 25th year next week by throwing a party here in Washington, DC. We would love for you to join us. Tickets for the event can be found here.

Leading up to the festivities our staff have been reflecting on 25 years of hard work. This week we would like to take a walk down memory lane, highlighting the biggest fraudsters, wasters, and abusers of taxpayer dollars throughout our tenure. And what better way to look back at our achievements than the recipients of the Golden Fleece? The late Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) not only gave us our very first contribution, he also bestowed upon us the duty and privilege of upholding his long cherished Golden Fleece award: a tongue in cheek prize awarded to only the most egregious of wasteful government programs. Over the years we have found some very worthy recipients – and we should add, getting the award is not, in fact, a good thing:

Back in 2003, we coined the phrase “bridge to nowhere,” highlighting the then-$190 million infrastructure project (estimated project costs would later balloon to almost $400 million) championed by Rep. Don Young (R-AK). The bridge was meant to connect Ketchikan, Alaska with the sparsely populated island of Gravina which was already being serviced, very successfully we might add, by a system of ferries. The baseless project was finally abandoned in 2007 after then-Governor Sarah Palin announced the state would no longer seek to build the bridge.

Another fan favorite is the Coal to Kaiserslautern kerfuffle. This winner of the Golden Fleece harkens back to 1961 when a handful of lawmakers met with Department of Defense officials in a misguided attempt to prop up the ailing Pennsylvania coal industry. Soon after their meeting, U.S. military bases located in Germany began using American coal for heating. The use of American coal at U.S. bases overseas became congressionally mandated in 1972 with riders tucked into a Pentagon funding bill. The stunt has meant that federal tax dollars were being shelled out to ship coal 4,000 miles from the U.S. to Germany even though Germany had plenty of coal in their borders. Sound inefficient? It was. But hard work, over several years, by Reps. Huffman (D-CA) and McClintock (R-CA) have finally ended the gravy train for Pennsylvania coal.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) blender pump program is a standout. Blender pumps are merely gas station pumps that can handle higher-blend ethanol fuels, but at the heart of the issue are outsized taxpayer subsidies for biofuels. In the 2014 farm bill Congress explicitly forbid USDA from spending on blender pumps, but Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack went around Congress to do just that. Using broad authority granted to the Secretary of Agriculture in the 1930s, he allotted $100 million to install blender pumps at privately owned gas stations. Just another handout to biofuels, the majority of which is comprised of mature corn ethanol industry. BTW, the current Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has tapped the same secretarial slush fund for a new round of blender pump payouts.

The Department of Defense B-21 Contract was another deserving recipient of the Golden Fleece award. But potential taxpayer costs were unclear because the Pentagon refused to disclose the contract value  for the new long-range bomber. The decision to withhold a price tag is at odds with longstanding Pentagon practices, with officials claiming national security reasons for keeping costs close to the chest. This was despite the fact that renderings for the plane were made public. We believe the real reason for remaining tight-lipped was that without a cost projection there can’t be cost overruns like many other Pentagon weapons systems.

But there were many more: mini-nuke reactors, a riverboat rip-off, a shady forest deal in West Virginia, and the FAA for sticking it taxpayers at the Tampa airport to name a few. In fact, that last one was our first fleece and sadly resurrected past memories.

As Sen. Proxmire observed in 2000:

“In March 1985, I gave the FAA the award for fleecing taxpayers out of millions at Florida airports through below-market leases. Now, independent auditors confirm that over the last 15 years, the FAA has basically done nothing to fix it… That is why I am delighted that, 25 years after I originated the Golden Fleece Award, Taxpayers for Common Sense is reviving it!”

We hope you will join us next week to raise a glass and celebrate 25 years of fighting for common sense policies that look out for taxpayers.

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