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Coburn Report Targets Robot Dragons, Video Game History

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo

Despite a pressing budget deficit, Congress spent $6.5 billion in 2011 on questionable initiatives, including paying $120 million to dead federal workers, preserving video game history and creating robot dragons, according to a report issued today by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

“Robot dragons, video games, Christmas trees, snow cone machines, and chocolate,” Coburn said in a report he released today. “This is not a Christmas wish list. These are just some of the ways the federal government spent your tax dollars this year.

“This report details 100 of the countless unnecessary, duplicative, or just plain stupid projects spread throughout the federal government and paid for with your tax dollars this year that highlight the out-of- control and shortsighted spending excesses in Washington,” Coburn said.

His comments come as the Congressional Budget Office said the deficit for fiscal 2011, which ended Sept. 30, hit $1.3 trillion — the third-straight year the deficit topped $1 trillion.

Coburn, one of the Senate’s most aggressive budget hawks, has sought to offer cuts to spending bills this year, but when his amendments do get votes they usually are defeated.

“Drowning in red ink, Congress refused to agree to reduce, cut or eliminate any of these Washington monuments of government waste,” Coburn said.

“So perhaps there was no bigger waste of the taxpayers’ money in 2011 than Congress itself,” he continued. “The dismal 9 percent approval rating, the lowest ever recorded, would indicate the vast majority of Americans would agree.”

Among the most costly of money wasters, according to the report, are the payments to deceased former federal employees. An average of $120 million in retirement and disability payments has been paid every year for at least the past five years.

“In a September 2011 report, the Inspector General for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management found that the amount of post-death improper payments is consistently $100-$150 million annually, totaling over $601 million in the last five years,” the report said.

“In one example the IG found, an annuitant’s son cashed his dead father‘s checks for 37 years,” the report continued. “The son’s scheme, which cost taxpayers more than $500,000, was discovered in 2008, when he himself died. ‘The improper payment was not recovered,’ the IG reported.”

Coburn also cast an incredulous eye at a $113,000 federal grant to the International Center for the History of Electronic Games for video game preservation.

According to the organization’s website, it collects, studies and interprets video games, other electronic games and related materials and the ways in which electronic games change how people play, learn and connect with each other.

The report said the funds would be used to conduct a detailed conservation survey of about 6,900 of the 17,000 e-games in the museum’s collection to determine the current condition of the physical artifacts and their virtual content. The study is designed to better position the museum to make its collection available to visitors, researchers and a broad public audience.

Coburn also lists a National Science Foundation-approved grant for more than $130,000 to allow researchers to study how robots can help preschoolers learn language skills.

The new robots, which are expected to be designed as dragons, will be able to mimic many of the responses that humans make. Nodding and eye gaze will be components of the robot interaction. These responses are essential for the robot to form a bond with the child, researchers say. Videos and computers lack such cues and are not as helpful for teaching as a responsive dragon robot might be, they say.

The report also cites a $484,000 Community Development Block Grant for a “drug-themed ‘Mellow Mushroom’ Pizza Restaurant.”

“Our nation currently faces many challenges; a shortage of beer and pizza, however, is rarely cited as one of them,” the report said. “Still, a private developer received nearly half a million dollars in federal funds to build Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers, a nationwide pizza chain, in Arlington, Texas.

“Mellow Mushroom is known for its tongue-in-cheek references to drug and hippie culture, sponsoring events such as the Sweetwater 420 Fest and calling its staff the Shroom Crew,” the report continued. “‘This Mellow will feature 3D artwork on the walls, mood rings, a lava room, and over 17 televisions all in a hippie chic setting,’ one local news story reported on the new Arlington location.”

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