The government wasted billions of dollars this year by allowing questionable tax breaks and paying for unnecessary programs even as the economy faltered, a Republican senator charged in a report released Monday.
In his "Wastebook 2012" report, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma pointed to 100 items including tax breaks to highly profitable sports leagues like the NFL, NASA funding to develop meals for a Mars mission that may not take place for decades and thousands of dollars for scientists to build a "robosquirrel" to see if rattlesnakes would try to eat it.
Coburn, a longtime crusader against waste, said better prioritizing and oversight could have saved taxpayers $18.9 billion on the programs included in the report, which was based largely on existing government studies, inspector generals' findings and media reports.
The White House's Office of Management and Budget "share(s) Sen. Coburn's commitment to cutting out waste and will continue to fight to prevent such spending wherever we find it," agency spokeswoman Moira Mack said.
"Between 2010 and 2012, the president proposed to Congress to eliminate, cut or save money in 228 government programs and the administration has already been successful in more than half of those," she added. "Where Congress has not acted, the president has moved aggressively through executive action to tackle unnecessary or excess spending."
Declaring that he works alongside "compulsive spenders" on Capitol Hill, Coburn in his report writes that with the struggling economy and the uncertainty of the looming fiscal cliff, it is imperative lawmakers reduce wasteful spending.
"Some try to rationalize the excessive borrowing and spending as necessary until the economy gets back on track," the second term Republican said. "But the increased demand for help is precisely why Washington must be more careful how tax dollars are spent to ensure we can care for those who are truly in need."
The report includes a National Science Foundation grant for $325,000 for university researchers in California to develop a robotic squirrel to observe how rattlesnakes react, to study the interaction between predators and prey.
The snakes appeared to accept the "robosquirrel" as real with one snake even biting off its head.
The report cites $27 million spent by the U.S. Agency for International Development to train Moroccans to make and sell pottery around the world. But the report, which cited a USAID inspector general report, says the program was riddled with problems, including having a translator at classes who was not fluent in English, and by using dyes and clay not available in that country.
The study is critical of the continued production of the copper penny, which now costs more than two cents to make. It complains about $516,000 spent on a video game that simulates the social experience of attending a prom, $31,000 for Smokey Bear balloons to make appearances at balloon festivals, $300,000 to promote domestically produced caviar, and $268 million spent on a loophole for paper manufacturers that allows them to claim a waste byproduct is an alternative energy source.
The report is critical of what it calls a professional sports loophole that allows leagues to be treated like trade or association groups and be exempt from federal income taxes on earnings.
"Hardworking taxpayers should not be forced to provide funding to offset tax giveaways to lucrative professional sports teams and leagues," says the report, which estimates getting rid of the loophole would bring $91 million into the treasury.
Greg Aiello, a spokesman for the NFL, said the league office itself "is classified as a not-for-profit under the tax code because the league office makes no profit." He said the teams make the profits and they are taxed.
Coburn put much of the blame for the wasteful spending on Congress, which he described as deeply ineffectual and disliked by the America people.