The Trump Administration and Congress are hashing out a stimulus package expected to cost taxpayers over $2 trillion to combat the devastating effects of the coronavirus outbreak on workers, businesses, and the economy. American families are hurting and Congress has a responsibility to consider targeted measures that help those who are feeling the economic effects of this pandemic. However, even in times of crisis, systems for transparency and accountability are needed to ensure these precious public dollars are not wasted.
With the pork stuffed into some of the COVID-19 stimulus proposals—like Democrats’ plan to bail out the U.S. Postal Service’s debt, reform small newspapers’ pension programs, and give a $35 million payout to D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts—we need to be vigilant to ensure this stimulus doesn’t turn into a slush fund as others have.
A decade ago, President Barack Obama enacted an $862 billion stimulus package to reverse the Great Recession that followed the financial crisis. The program fell short of its lofty job creation, infrastructure, and growth goals, in part because too much stimulus money was spent on irrelevant and inefficient programs.
Many people have heard about the $535 million in stimulus money wasted when failed solar panel company Solyndra went under, but waste, fraud, and abuse under the previous stimulus program were widespread.
In 2010, a year after the stimulus was passed, former Senators Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) released their now-legendary report, “Summertime Blues: 100 stimulus projects that give taxpayers the blues.” The report highlighted Obama stimulus projects that the Senators said had “questionable goals,” were “being mismanaged or were poorly planned” and were even “costing jobs and hurting small businesses.”
One infamous example from the stimulus report that attracted the ire of fiscal hawks and animal-lovers was a $144,541 National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded experiment that hooked monkeys on cocaine. Coburn and McCain wrote, “Researchers at Wake Forest University think that, in at least one case, it is good to monkey around with your stimulus dollars.”
Surely, this is not how Americans intended for this stimulus money to be spent, and the opportunity still exists for this abuse of taxpayers under the guise of a national emergency.
Earlier this month, Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) lambasted an NSF-funded study that wasted over $900,000 to place dead turtles and living turtles on a treadmill to study how they move. White Coat Waste Project recently exposed that the NIH shipped over $6 million in tax dollars to a U.K. university to addict monkeys to cocaine, heroin, and alcohol and wasted more than $16 million scaring monkeys with fake snakes and spiders.
Wasteful junkie monkey experiments and treadmill tests are alive and well, and we can’t let government bureaucrats and special interests exploit a tragedy again to funnel vulnerable taxpayers’ money to their pet projects.
Something the Obama Administration’s stimulus bill got right was assigning an independent body to oversee stimulus projects and launching Recovery.gov to track spending and report abuse. For each project, the now-defunct government website reported how much money was spent, the number of jobs created, and other details.
Any stimulus bills that make it to the president’s desk should include a mechanism for independent oversight of spending and mandate a transparent and user-friendly system allowing taxpayers and lawmakers to hold government accountable for where stimulus money is going and what impact it has on the economy.
Americans are rightfully worried about the health of their friends, families, and 401Ks. We are, too. People shouldn’t also have to worry that federal emergency funds meant to save lives and livelihoods are being wasted to put fish on treadmills or renovate an opera house.