Tag: Senator Tom Coburn

Homeland Security Grants: Subsidizing Dystopia with Your Tax Dollars

My Washington Examiner column this week focuses on an important new study from the office of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK): “Safety at Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in U.S. Cities.”  If you’ve read any of the ample media coverage the report’s received, you may have heard that DHS grants have gone toward 13 sno-cone machines for terror-warriors in Michigan, a latrine on wheels for Fort Worth, Texas, a $100,000 underwater robot for Columbus, Ohio, and a Halloween “zombie apocalypse” demonstration at a swank resort outside San Diego.

But, as I argue in the Examiner,

the media focus on “waste, fraud, and abuse” misses a graver problem with DHS’s decade-long spending spree. Sno-cone machines and “zombie apocalypse” parties aren’t the worst things DHS is underwriting. We ought to worry more about the proliferation of surveillance cameras, mobile biometric scanners, armored personnel carriers and police drones.

The useless projects DHS funds are far less troubling than the ones that can be used to harm Americans’ privacy and liberty—and Coburn’s report is replete with examples of the latter.

Just today the Daily noted another troubling DHS project: “Government officials are quietly installing sophisticated audio surveillance systems on public buses across the country to eavesdrop on passengers…. Linked to video cameras already in wide use, the microphones will offer a formidable new tool for security and law enforcement. With the new systems, experts say, transit officials can effectively send an invisible police officer to transcribe the individual conversations of every passenger riding on a public bus.” The Daily notes, unsurprisingly, “In San Francisco, the Department of Homeland Security is funding the entire cost with a grant.”

It’s a mistake to look at DHS grants simply through the prism of government waste—as if what’s going on here is of a piece with $500 toilet seats and bridges to nowhere.  The costs of this unthinking slide toward a militarized, high-tech Idiocracy can’t be measured in budgetary terms alone.

More highlights from Coburn’s report after the jump:

Coburn also notes the use of DHS funds for police purchases of “Long Range Acoustic Device” crowd-control weapons:

originally developed for use by the military as a nonlethal way to repel adversaries, including Iraqi insurgents or pirates, by making a loud and intense sound that is capable of damaging hearing. Law enforcement agencies have purchased LRAD machines for purposes that include crowd control and issuing message and alerts across vast distances, though its use in terror-related preparedness is questionable.

In 2009, the Pittsburgh police department used its LRAD machine to disperse a crowd that was protesting the G-20 summit….
In 2009, the San Diego County Sheriff stationed its LRAD device at the town-hall meetings of Rep. Darryl Issa (R-CA), Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA), and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), which drew conservative and liberal protestors. The San Diego sheriff’s stated that the LRADs were in place so they “could use the LRAD in place of pepper spray” if there were problem at the event, which there was not.

… Mobile Fingerprinting Devices:

The Fairfax County Police Department in Virginia,
part of the National Capital Region around
Washington, D.C., spent nearly $12 million to upgrade
its automated fingerprinting system called NOVARIS
and purchased mobile devices for use by officers in the
field. Digital fingerprinting had been in place for
Fairfax police since the early 1980’s, but the county
applied for, and won, UASI funds to purchase a new
state-of-the-art system, that would also help it
coordinate with neighboring counties. “Since it was
due for an upgrade, we took the opportunity to use the
UASI grant funds to refresh the system,” explained Alan Hanson with the department.
Hanson explained that the equipment “is used most often in a voluntary capacity” in situations where people are stopped but do not have identification.

…Armored Personnel Carriers:

police departments are arming themselves with military assets often reserved for war zones. One California resident observed as much when officials in Carlsbad—a city with one of the state’s lowest crime rates—expressed interest in using DHS funds to buy a BearCat: “What we’re really talking about here is a tank, and if we’re at the point where every small community needs a tank for protection, we’re in a lot more trouble as a state than I thought.”….

Fargo, a town which “has averaged fewer than 2 homicides per year since 2005” bought a “new $256,643 armored truck, complete with a rotating [gun] turret” using homeland security funds. Fargo Police Lieutenant Ross Renner acknowledges that Fargo “[does not] have every-day threats here when it comes to terrorism.”

…and “Drones: Patrolling the Skies Like Never Before”:

In Texas, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department successfully acquired a $300,000 Vanguard’s ShadowHawk drone fully paid with UASI dollars. Vanguard, located near Montgomery County, approached the sheriff’s department about procuring one of its unmanned systems, according to Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel. In fact, Vanguard helped the Sheriff’s department write “a winning grant proposal that allowed the entire cost of acquisition, training, insurance, and maintenance for a period two years to be absorbed in an Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grant.”

Do read the whole thing.

Solution to Fiscal Cliff Should Include Senator Coburn’s $68 Billion in Pentagon Spending Cuts

The fiscal cliff is looming and Washington is scrambling to reach a deal to avoid a Thelma and Louise ending in January. To start, policymakers need to identify spending cuts, and they could begin with Senator Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) just-released report on wasteful and duplicative spending in the Pentagon. The report identifies savings totaling at least $67.9 billion over the next decade in the Department of Defense. The common thread linking these disparate recommendations—from axing non-military research and development projects ($6 billion) to eliminating Pentagon-operated grocery stores ($9 billion)—is that the expenditures “have little to do with national security” and therefore could be implemented “without impacting our national security.” “Many of these programs, initiatives or research projects,” the report explains:

may serve worthy interests, but should not be the job of our military tasked with fighting and winning the nation’s wars.

Unfortunately this mission creep has essentially transformed the Department of Defense into the Department of Everything.

The five missions examined by this report—research and development, education, alternative energy, grocery stores, and support and supply services—could be or already are being better delivered by more appropriate federal agencies or departments, civilian federal employees, or even the private sector. (Emphasis in original.)

Sen. Coburn is to be commended for his willingness to take on the self-proclaimed defenders of defense, those men and women who aver that the Pentagon’s $600+ billion budget is sacrosanct, and who have rushed to the ramparts with the cry of “not a penny more out of defense.

And this is not the first time that Coburn has stepped forward with specific recommendations for spending cuts. In July 2011, his “Back in Black” plan identified $9 trillion in savings and deficit reduction, including $1 trillion from the Pentagon’s budget.

Combined with a number of other recent studies—including by Taxpayers for Common Sense, which identified $2 trillion in deficit reduction, including $672.5 billion from “national security”; and the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA), which just yesterday put forward specific recommendations for Pentagon cuts totaling more than $550 billion—Coburn’s latest provides ammunition to those taxpayer advocates who are calling for serious spending cuts. More importantly, it should strike fear in the hearts of those faux conservatives who are urging Republicans to preemptively surrender to President Obama’s demand for higher taxes (Exhibit 1; Exhibit 2; and Exhibit 3) in order to keep the spigot open to defense contractors.

I have praised Sen. Coburn before, including here and here, but I will confess to being disappointed that this report doesn’t go far enough. According to the PDA study mentioned above, President Obama’s latest 10-year plan calls for Americans to spend $5.757 trillion on the Pentagon. Against that baseline, Coburn’s sensible reforms would save a mere 1 percent.

Coburn explains that he wants to “refocus the Pentagon to its true mission: fighting and winning the nation’s wars.” That is a noble goal. But none of the recommendations in this latest report address the aspects of the Pentagon’s budget that goes to fighting other nations’ wars. Coburn boasts that his plan doesn’t cut “any Army brigade combat teams, Navy combat ships, or Air Force fighter squadrons.” A truly transformational plan would.

Coming to grips with our bloated defense budget begins with a clearer understanding of what is meant by the “common defense.” To the Founders of the Republic, and to the vast majority of Americans today, it means defending us, these United States, our citizens, and our interests. The bipartisan consensus in Washington believes something very different: that American taxpayers should be on the hook for defending other countries that can and should defend themselves. Until and unless that changes, we won’t be able to make significant in military spending without overstressing the force. A smaller military should have fewer missions.

All that said, Dr. Coburn’s courage and wisdom should be emulated by others who care about this country’s security—both fiscal and physical. And those who are the first to criticize this report will reveal themselves for what they are: mindless advocates of more spending, consequences be damned.

Washington Post Asks for Budget Plans

The Washington Post’s editorial board issued a challenge to the president and his Republican opponents: “show us your plans” for deficit reduction. In fact, the Post says it would be “delighted” to receive plans from its readers. However, the Post isn’t interested in “meaningless promises” to cut “waste, fraud, and abuse”—it wants specifics:

Here’s what we’re not looking for: pablum about eliminating unnecessary spending without identifying where. Gauzy rhetoric about making hard choices without making them. Meaningless promises about eliminating waste, fraud and abuse. Broad assertions about where to find the money — “Medicare savings,” “tax reform” — without specifics. Arbitrary spending caps without accompanying details about how those limits are to be met. If you believe, for example, that federal spending should be kept to a specific share of the economy — 18 percent? 20 percent? — show the plausible path to getting there.

Amen. Chris Edwards and I have been beating the drum for Republican policymakers in particular to get specific about what they would cut. Chris recently noted that with the exception of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and perhaps a few others, Republicans aren’t putting much effort into identifying programs to terminate. And I have noted that “It’s more common to hear Republicans blubber on about ‘reducing waste, fraud, and abuse’ in government programs and ‘saving’ the pillars of the welfare state (Social Security and Medicare) for ‘future generations.’”

As for deficit reduction ideas from Washington Post readers, we have a balanced budget plan on our Downsizing the Federal Government website. In fact, not only do we have a plan, we have over three dozen essays on numerous government agencies that provide details on what programs to cut and why.

Obsession with Senate “Holds” Is Misguided

With the start of the 112th Congress, Senate Democrats have offered a set of rule changes, most of which are geared toward the filibuster.  Some of these changes, such as guaranteeing the minority at least three amendments, make a great deal of sense.  I’ve long thought that the practice of the majority leader (of any party) “filling the amendment tree” did not make for good legislating.  And I say that, recalling as a former Senate staffer, the practice made my life easier on numerous occasions.

One part of the package, however, that of ending “secret” holds, strikes me as rather uninformed as to actual Senate practice.  First let’s recall that a “hold’ is essentially a method for senators to tell the majority leader that if the leader were to try to move a nomination or piece of legislation by unanimous consent, that Senator would object on the Senate floor. 

There are lots of reasons why senators might put a hold on a bill.  They object to the bill and would like to be able to vote “no,” which is impossible when moving bills by unanimous consent (UC).  Maybe they’d like to offer an amendment.  Or, I know this sounds crazy, maybe they (or their staff) would like time to actually read the bill.

The rules change package does aim at ending “secret” holds, where the senator placing the hold is not publicly known.  Again speaking from my own experience of seven years as a Senate committee staffer and having helped passed dozens of bills by UC, I have never once had a problem of figuring out who was behind a hold.  In fact, most the time the Senate office in question would call me and let me know what their problem was.  The vast majority of the time we were able to address the issue and move forward.  Many holds only lasted a few hours.  Several offices, such as Senator Coburn’s, actually read every bill that was brought to the floor, and all they wanted was a little time to do so.  I can’t see how anyone would have a problem with that.

As to the secret nature of holds, I have yet to see a case where that knowledge didn’t become public.  The risk to making it public immediately is that every special interest involved in the bill would swarm upon whoever placed the hold.  And that is what removing the “secret” hold is really about: giving special interests further opportunities to pressure senators before they have the time to actually learn the issue and perhaps work out a compromise with their colleagues.

At its core, the hold is simply a courtesy between senators.  And courtesy is something I think the Senate needs more of, rather than less.  Of course, holds would not matter at all if we just made two simple changes:  no more moving bills/nominations by unanimous consent (have actual votes), and announce at least a week ahead of time which bills will be voted on and have the bill language publicly available.

Emergency Spending

A recent paper by Veronique de Rugy examines how policymakers use various budgeting gimmicks to increase spending and obscure liabilities. One particularly abusive mechanism is the designation of supplemental spending as an “emergency.” The emergency designation makes it easier for policymakers to skirt budgetary rules, particularly “pay-as-you-go” (PAYGO) requirements.

The following chart from the paper shows how supplemental spending, most of which was designated as “emergency,” has taken off in the last decade:

As the chart notes, much of the increase is attributable to supplemental appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush administration was rightly criticized by analysts across the ideological spectrum for funding the wars outside of the standard budget process.

However, with the Democrats in control, the emergency designation is now being abusively applied to domestic spending. Congressional Research Service data obtained by the office of Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) finds that emergency spending has increased deficits by almost $1 trillion since the 111th Congress was seated in January 2009.

The biggest chunk came with passage of the $862 billion “emergency” stimulus bill in February 2009. The Obama administration insisted that the emergency spending legislation was necessary to jump-start the economy and keep unemployment below 8 percent. Oops.

Congress has since passed additional multi-billion dollar “emergency” bills to extend supposedly simulative activities like unemployment benefits. The latest “emergency” extender bill that is bogged down in the Senate would add another $57 billion in debt.

What is Congress allowed to designate as emergency spending? Keith Hennessey, a former economic advisor to George W. Bush, offers the best definition: “it’s whatever you can get away with labeling as an emergency.”

However, Hennessey points out that there was originally a test with a fairly high bar created by the Office of Management and Budget in 1991 under the first President Bush. According to Hennessey, all five of these conditions had to be met:

  1. Necessary; (essential or vital, not merely useful or beneficial)
  2. Sudden; (coming into being quickly, not building up over time)
  3. Urgent; (requiring immediate action)
  4. Unforeseen; and
  5. Not permanent.

Hennessey says the definition was included in congressional budget resolutions during Bush II’s administration and that the president proposed codifying it in law. But that doesn’t seem to be the policy that the Bush II administration actually followed. With perhaps the exception of initial hostilities, there was nothing “unforeseen” about Bush’s “emergency” war spending in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems that Bush’s inability to abide by his own proposal is another sad reminder that his fiscally reckless tenure helped pave the road to Obama.

Republicans and Earmarks

This week, a handful of fiscally conservative Republican senators have been trying to cut earmarks out of the $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the legislation contains 8,570 earmarks worth $7.7 billion.

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has sought to strike specific items, like the $200,000 earmark for Tattoo Removal Violence Prevention Outreach Program in Burbank, California and the $1.9 million earmark to the Pleasure Beach Water Taxi Service in Connecticut.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has taken a broader approach by introducing an amendment to strike all earmarks from the bill and revert to last year’s spending levels.

Not surprisingly, they have been unsuccessful. And given recent events, one must wonder if these efforts by fiscal conservatives are even welcomed by members of their own party.

The amendments introduced by Coburn and McCain were defeated by opposition from not only by the majority of Democratic senators, but also many Republican appropriators, like Senators Thad Cochrane (R-MS) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).

And despite his occasional anti-earmark rhetoric and support for the Coburn and McCain amendments, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is one of the chief beneficiaries of the earmark-laden omnibus bill. Reports suggest he requested either $75 or $51 million for his home state of Kentucky. Either way, he will obtain far more than his Democratic counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), whose earmark requests total $26 million.

Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has been fairly consistent in her criticism of the earmarking process and, for the most part, has voted accordingly. Proving that Republican affection for earmarking is a bicameral phenomenon, her stance attracted ire from Representative Roy Blunt (R-MO), formerly one of the highest-ranking Republicans in House, who said he “would hope that Claire would change her mind on this,” as he praised Senator Kit Bond’s (R-MO) prowess at earmarking.

Now, earmarks make up a relatively small slice of the overall budget, but as Coburn has noted, the problem with earmarks is ‘‘the hidden cost of perpetuating a culture of fiscal irresponsibility. When politicians fund pork projects they sacrifice the authority to seek cuts in any other program.”

For more on earmarks, check out the “Corporate Welfare and Earmarks” chapter of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers.