Federal Fumbles and Failures

The federal government has suffered from wasteful spending since the beginning. One of the biggest bureaucracies in the 19th century was the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). An official history says, “the Indian Bureau operated under constant and often well-founded criticism of corruption and inefficiency in its handling of the millions of dollars in supplies purchased each year for the reservations.”

Senator James Lankford’s new study on wasteful spending (“Federal Fumbles”) indicates that BIA mismanagement persists, with waste and failure in its housing, education, and health care programs. I uncovered the same problems with the BIA.

“Fumbles” identifies wasteful programs across the government. The government spent $745 million on an Air Force control center that was scrapped, $85,000 for a music conductor’s birthday party, $148,950 for Alabama’s birthday party, $150,382 to document the Domaaki language in Pakistan, $1 billion for a low-value trolley in San Diego, $17 billion on erroneous EITC subsidies, and $1 billion on federal agency advertising.

Spending on such dubious activities represents a small share of the $4 trillion federal budget. But Lankford’s examples illustrate the broader overspending disease that afflicts Congress and the executive branch, which I discuss here, here, and here. Lankford’s projects are not just random failures, but rather stem from structural features of the government that induce overspending.

Senator Lankford will discuss his report at a Cato forum on Capitol Hill tomorrow at noon. Romina Boccia of Heritage, Steve Ellis of TCS, Ryan Bourne of Cato, and I will comment on the report, discuss the budget situation, and examine prospects for spending cuts. Federal spending is not a free lunch, but Cato forums are. All are welcome.