The Case Against Stupid Spending in COVID-19 Crisis

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The late Sen. Tom Coburn, author of “Wastebook,” was fearless in fighting what he described as "stupid spending." Now, perhaps more than ever before, we could use Senator Coburn and his watchful eye as our nation prepares to enter what will be the very trying aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.

In 2013, Time magazine named Coburn one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He earned criticism from both Republicans and Democrats for putting up procedural roadblocks to stop wasteful, excessive spending. More than once, Coburn was known to say: “I am not a go-along, get-along guy if I think it is the wrong way to go.” 

Honest to a fault, one year he highlighted a $500,000 annual subsidy going to a lightly used airport in Oklahoma. Yes, in Oklahoma, the state he represented while serving in the U.S. Senate and House. Now, following billions of dollars in stimulus being allocated to aid state governments with the economic fallout from coronavirus, Coburn would have been a welcome sight. Too often, we see these billions become slush funds for state and local politicians rather than go toward helping citizens. We saw it in 2009, when federal stimulus funds meant to help boost state economies out of the recession ended up in some cases on pet projects for politicians. 

The opportunity for waste and improper spending is again present in 2020 as we attempt to pick ourselves up from the coronavirus. Look no further than congressional Democrats attempting to sneak 11th-hour funding for their liberal wish list into the third round of stimulus relief from coronavirus.

But, while we no longer have the benefit of hearing Senator Coburn’s counsel, his principles and examples can, and should, guide elected leaders – and help the rest of us hold them accountable – by reflecting on the question, “Would this make it into Tom Coburn’s book?” In his speeches on the Senate floor, Coburn offered three common-sense approaches to wisely spend the money taxpayers give elected leaders to advance our common cause. 

1) Avoid duplication. Coburn regularly made the case that governments can be absolutely incompetent managers when multiple agencies separately run the same program.

2)  Account for grant dollars. Coburn often cited examples of how grant dollars get misused through fraud and mismanagement. On top of that, funds never get sent back when programs are not carried out or come in under budget.

3) Establish a metric to determine effectiveness. Coburn was clear when he said in 2013: “We have these grant programs. What are they doing, what are they supposed to do, and how are they measuring up? We don't know because we don't require the federal government to measure the effectiveness of its programs.” 

As we begin to climb out of the rubble of COVID-19, we’re faced with tackling increased state and local government costs with diminished tax revenues. This is no time for our politicians to revert to what we saw in 2009. Our leaders have a responsibility to do what’s right to lead us out of this crisis, and we have a responsibility to hold them accountable.

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been made available to get us through the longer-term effects of the coronavirus. Our leaders must be prudent, attentive, and diligent in determining how that money can be used most effectively to help those who are now struggling so very much. It is up to our elected officials to honor Tom Coburn’s memory and protect our hard-earned dollars. 

Jessica Curtis is executive director of GOPAC, a Republican state and local training organization.



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