Fumbling Federal Finances

The federal government has suffered from waste, fraud, and abuse in its spending programs for decades—actually, centuries. A federal effort in the 1790s to run Indian trading posts, for example, was plagued by inefficiency. For almost as long, studies have been documenting the waste. An 1836 Ways and Means Committee report, for example, criticized river and harbor projects for being chronically overbudget.

The wasteful spending continues today, and the latest effort to document it is Senator James Lankford’s new study, “Federal Fumbles: 100 Ways the Government Dropped the Ball.” The study describes projects such as “$495,000 to fund a temporary exhibit for sights, sounds, tastes and yes, even smells of the Medieval period” and $2 million for a “multi-year study about kids’ eating emotions, and how they don’t like to eat food that’s been sneezed on.”

Spending on such dubious projects represents only a small share of the $4 trillion federal budget. However, Lankford’s examples illustrate the broader overspending disease that afflicts Congress and the executive branch, which I discuss here and here. Lankford’s projects are not just random failures: they stem from structural features of the government that induce politicians and agency officials to spend on low-value activities.

Senator Lankford will discuss his report at a Cato forum on Capital Hill, Wednesday at noon. Tom Schatz, Justin Bogie, and I will comment on the report and examine prospects for cutting spending during the Trump administration. All are invited.

To explore the structural reasons for ongoing waste in federal spending, see “Why the Federal Government Fails” and essays here.