A life-size Pac-Man game, a nightclub on wheels, jazz-playing robots — these are just a few projects that U.S. Senator Jeff Flake says taxpayers wasted their money on this year.
In a snarky new report, “Wastebook 2015: The Farce Awakens,” the junior senator from Arizona calls a total of 100 projects into question.
The most disturbing discovery, Flake told New Times, was that some of the people living in publicly subsidized housing are pulling in six-figure incomes and have millions in assets. Meanwhile, in New York City alone, nearly 300,000 actual low-income families are on the waiting list to receive assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
According to an audit by HUD’s Office of Inspector General, over the next year, the government will pay $104.4 million for public-housing units occupied by families that make tens of thousands of dollars more than the qualifying limit.
Local housing authorities contend that allowing more well-to-do tenants to stay in public housing is beneficial because they serve as role models for low-income occupants, but, Flake argued, “What kind of role model is someone who is fleecing the taxpayer?”
Flake also derided the U.S. Agency for International Development for spending $2 million to promote tourism in Lebanon at the same time the State Department was warning Americans “to avoid all travel to Lebanon because of ongoing safety and security concerns.” The program director for one initiative — training rock-climbing guides in the village of Tannourine — noted, “There are still landmines around Tannourine” but added that some have “recently been cleared.”
Much of “Wastebook” consists of poking fun at expensive scientific research projects.
The National Institutes of Health, for example, gave scientists at the Texas-based Southwest National Primate Research Center $1 million to teach 12 monkeys how to run on the treadmill in hamster balls. Researchers concluded that training tips might be useful to those who wish to study monkeys’ physiological responses to exercise, but, Flake argued, other researchers with “more meaningful purposes” already appear to have figured out how to make monkeys hit the treadmill.
“They weren’t even pretending to be studying anything other than whether or not it was possible to do a study,” he said.
In another case, Flake reported, the National Institute of Drug Abuse spent $780,000 to determine that pizza “may be addictive as crack.” Researchers paid college students $20 each for their help identifying the foods that cause the most addict-like behavior.
“The study’s results come as a surprise to absolutely no one,” Flake wrote in the report. “After all, college students eat pizza for breakfast, lunch, and dinner or in between meals as a late-night snack.”
The federal government also spent $17,500 to study “weight sensitivity training,” during which participants are required to wear a 20-pound fat vest for 12 or more hours, and $276,000 to discover how unattractive people manage to land an attractive partner.
A study deconstructing how exactly a koozie keeps a can of beer cold cost tax payers $1.3 million.
"It looks like they came up with some of these ideas in a frat house rather than a serious research institution," Flake said.
“Wastebook” is Flake’s fourth oversight report this year. Off and on since 2003, when he served as a member of the U.S. House, he and his staff have dug through federal financial records, picking out evidence of bloat and publishing lists of shame. He picked up the practice from former U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma).
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Flake said he hopes his work will inspire fellow legislators to help trim the budget.
In at least one instance, it already has. After he and Arizona U.S. Senator John McCain revealed earlier this year that the U.S. Department of Defense gave professional sports leagues (including the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League) about $53 million, Congress moved to put a stop to it. While some of the money was spent on recruiting booths or stadium signs, a good chunk was payment for putting on patriotic tributes, according to the report, such as hosting a surprise veteran homecoming or a color-guard performance.
“These are things everyone assumes are done because the owners of the team are generous and want to help the troops,” Flake said. “We shouldn’t be paying to salute our hometown heroes.”