Examining government spending can be mundane, but point out the government is paying for rabbit massages and people will start to pay attention.
Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., who has been making "Waste of the Week" speeches for nearly a year, said every three or four weeks he likes to throw in something "so ridiculous there’s just no way you can defend it.” Highlighting a National Institutes of Health study that examined exercise recovery by giving rabbits massages fit the bill. That's just one of the 29 programs, studies and departments Coats has pointed out in his weekly speeches on the Senate floor. Each week, he also brings out a poster with a thermometer, noting in red how much money he claims the programs are wasting. To date, he has highlighted more than $130 billion in government spending.
Standing next to a poster with dollar bills and the phrase "Waste of the Week" in bold green letters, Coats has sought to chip away at government waste, taking up the mantle that former Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., left behind.
Coats said his speeches were inspired by Coburn, who would release his government spending "Wastebook" each year. Since Coats' first speech in February, several other GOP senators have stepped into a waste-watching role, including Jeff Flake of Arizona and James Lankford of Oklahoma, both of whom released their own wastebooks, and presidential hopeful Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Some people told Coats the other senators were stealing his thunder, but Coats disagreed.
"The more the merrier,” Coats said. "I want as many senators as possible coming down there.”
Coats said his staff combs through scores of reports from inspectors general, the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service, and then present him with a number of options for the week's speech. He hoped his speeches could inform his colleagues, and the electorate, about government spending, and provide suggestions about what could be cut to pay for more essential programs.
For Coats, highlighting government waste can also lead to some change. "It’s not just exposing it to people," Coats explained, "but the next step is to force Congress to take action to prevent this from happening.”
And he has seen some action from his speeches, including a few bipartisan bills and a new law.
In May, Coats' "Waste of the Week" speech focused on a Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration finding that the Internal Revenue Service wrongly allowed more than 3 million taxpayers to claim a higher education tax credit. His legislation to require proof that one should be eligible for the tax credit was signed into law as part of a broader trade assistance package.
Despite some success, a lack of action is actually what spurred Coats to start the weekly speeches. He realized, in a gridlocked Congress and with a Democratic president, a comprehensive deal to combat the national debt was not in the cards.
"I had been part of an effort that many of us had made over the last five or six years or so to address the largest issue of debt and deficit,” Coats said. "All those efforts came up short.”
Nearly one month to the day after his first "Waste of the Week" speech, Coats announced he would not run for re-election in 2016. But he insisted that congressional gridlock was not a factor in his decision.
"There’s a lot of frustration here on the part of Republicans in particular because it’s been really, really hard to deal with this president in ways that matter,” Coats said. He later added, "I’m at the point age-wise where I’ve decided it’s time to pass the baton to people who have several terms in front of them, and have the energy and the excitement and the engagement that is necessary to carry it on.”
Coats first came to Congress in 1981, serving in the House. He served in the Senate from 1989 to 1999, and then left Congress to serve as the American ambassador to Germany from 2001 to 2005. In 2010, Coats ended his retirement to run for the Senate again.
In his first weekly speech, Coats said the national debt was a top issue when he ran again in 2010, and debt remains a challenge. So the 72-year-old said he is going to be making "Waste of the Week" speeches throughout his final year in the Senate.
"I’m going to continue it right up to the very last day,” Coats said. “I’m going to pour every ounce of effort I have into doing as much as I can before I leave.”
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