Coburn calls out USDA, other agencies on wasteful spending

Monday - 6/24/2013, 5:53pm EDT

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) on "In Depth" with Francis Rose

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By Cogan Schneier
Special to Federal News Radio

Even with across-the-board cuts forcing agencies to downsize their budgets, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) says too many agencies are still spending money on wasteful, unnecessary or unimportant programs.

"Should we be spending money on lower priority things, when higher priority things that really make a big difference in individuals' lives, or in the defense of our country or the security of our nation, are lacking? And that's my question," Coburn said in an interview Friday on In Depth with Francis Rose.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)

Coburn, the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, recently sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack — the latest in a series of letters the senator has sent to various agencies outlining opportunities to cut costs in the wake of the sequester.

In the June 19 letter, Coburn accuses USDA of "subsidizing island homes for the rich and famous." Coburn said those looking to buy homes on the affluent island of Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, are receiving federal housing assistance because the island has been designated as a rural area eligible for USDA loans. Meanwhile, Coburn wrote, USDA threatened to withhold rental assistance to 10,000 other rural residents as a result of sequestration.

"It's hard to think that Martha's Vineyard is a rural USDA-eligible place for loans in a normal American's mind," Coburn said.

Coburn also cited a USDA program that gives free meals to all children 18 and younger, regardless of need, at 65 different sites in Tulsa through the Summer Café program of the Summer Food Service Program. Coburn wrote that this made no sense, and the USDA should not give free meals to children who aren't in need while the agency is threatening to cut assistance to those who rely on the Woman, Infants and Children (WIC) program.

Coburn expressed concern about USDA-provided funds for various alcohol vendors, including more than 20 wine projects supported by the USDA's Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. In addition, Coburn said USDA has awarded grants for other "questionable" projects, including the marketing of various products such as pizza, ice cream and pickles.

"If budgets need to be tightened to provide nutrition services for women and children or housing for the elderly and disabled in rural areas, it is unclear why USDA is funding these projects when there is already a market for all of these products," Coburn wrote in the letter.

Coburn has sent similar letters recently to the Justice and Interior departments and the Federal Aviation Administration. Coburn also wrote to Housing and Urban Development in March and the Defense Department in February.

In his letters, Coburn points out areas that he considers "low priority," where he sees potential for cuts. Coburn said Friday he believes much of the problem in Congress is a failure to identify spending priorities.

"What we should do is make it only hurt in the things that are very low priority and not hurt in the things where we're actually good and actually making a difference," Coburn said.

Coburn also wrote to congressional leaders on Congress' own potential for spending cuts, mentioning the Senate barber shop, excessive printing and "lifestyle coaching" for staff. Coburn said in his letter that Congress has failed to set difficult fiscal priorities and should begin to do so within its "own halls."

Coburn has also worked on bipartisan legislation to curb waste. Recently, Coburn worked with Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) on legislation combating fraud in Medicare and Medicaid. Coburn and Carper, along with Reps. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and John Carney (D-Del.) introduced the "Preventing and Reducing Improper Medicare and Medicaid Expenditures Act of 2013" (PRIME), which aims to prevent the estimated $50-60 billion lost to Medicare fraud.

(Cogan Schneier is an intern for Federal News Radio)

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