Sen. Coburn Debunks His Own Report

December 21, 2011 2:15 pm ET — Jamison Foser

Sen. Tom Coburn

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has produced yet another list of government spending that he considers wasteful largely because it sounds funny — but this time, Coburn seems a bit defensive over criticism he's received for similar previous reports. 

Coburn's typical approach is to catalogue government spending that he can caricature with silly-sounding headlines, much of it constituting a trivial amount of money, and lambaste the "wasteful" spending without bothering to assess the actual merits.  

As usual, Coburn's latest effort is a frivolous "report" that not only fails to make any serious effort to assess the validity of the programs it assails, but also lumps together large expenditures with small, not even bothering to distinguish between trivial and significant spending. 

"Wartime Contracting Waste and Fraud Costs Taxpayers Billions — (Iraq and Afghanistan) $4.38 billion" is the 40th entry — 22 slots after a $48,700 expenditure for an agriculture event. The report devotes more words to $697,006 in "Federal Transportation Dollars to Make Las Vegas Highways Beautiful" than to the $4.38 billion in "Wartime Contracting Waste and Fraud." 

A $6,279 expenditure for snow cone machines (the Michigan state government says they're meant to help treat heat exhaustion during emergencies) makes the opening sentence of Coburn's introduction. Meanwhile, the introduction doesn't even mention wartime contracting, which accounts for $4.38 billion of the $6.9 billion in total "waste" identified in the report — more than 60 percent.

But Coburn's failure to even try to distinguish between large amounts of waste and small is only his second-biggest failing. The largest, as always, is that he hasn't actually identified "waste." He's identified things that sound wasteful, without bothering to determine whether they really are — and, in some cases, whether they actually exist.

Less than two months ago, Coburn was caught denouncing a laundry list of non-existent spending — which he would have known was non-existent had he bothered to contact the targets of his attacks before releasing the report in question. That followed a stream of criticism earlier this year from scientists who accused him of misrepresenting their work in an attack on National Science Foundation grants — and who, contrary to Coburn's office's claim that he sought comment from grant recipients, said they hadn't been contacted.

Coburn's latest report suggests he's feeling the heat over the criticism that he hasn't bothered to assess the merits of the spending he attacks. Take a look at this remarkable portion of Coburn's introduction, with two key paragraphs highlighted in blue:

Sen. Tom Coburn's Wastebook 2011

Coburn's report is titled "2011 Wastebook: A Guide to Some of the Most Wasteful and Low Priority Government Spending of 2011." In his introduction, Coburn writes that the report details "unnecessary, duplicative, or just plain stupid projects." But on the very same page, in an adjacent paragraph, Coburn admits: "Some of the projects listed within this report may indeed serve useful purposes or have merit."

That's a pretty perfect snapshot of Tom Coburn: railing against "unnecessary, duplicative, or just plain stupid" spending that, oh, by the way, might actually "serve useful purposes" and "have merit." He doesn't know — or care. He just wants the headlines.