McCain Hits Bomb-Sniffing Elephants, NASCAR Ads as Wasteful Spending

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, has released a list of federally funded programs and contacts that he has labeled "America's Most Wasted," slamming projects he sees as a misuse of taxpayer funds such as experiments to see if elephants can sniff out bombs.

McCain also notes in his report a Congressional Budget Office finding that in fiscal 2014 the government spent about $294 billion on programs that were not supposed to receive any more funding.

"At a time when Americans' disapproval of government is at an all-time high, it has never been more important to reign-in spending and put our fiscal house back in order," McCain says in the report's introduction.

McCain said his list was inspired by a similar report published annually by former Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, called "Wastebook."

Three of the spending programs McCain takes aim at are related to national security:

  • $50,000 spent to determine if elephants can detect bombs
  • $49 million on National Guard spending on pro-sports advertising
  • $23 million on research for a new means of detecting pathogens and biological threats that ended with no product and a cancelled contract

McCain said the Army Research Development and Engineering Command was awarded a $50,000 grant in 2012 to determine if the African elephant could sniff out bombs.

The results were not conclusive, according to McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"While finding new ways to enhance our bomb detection methods is important, it is unlikely that African elephants could feasibly be used on the battlefield given their large size and sensitive status as 'threatened' under the Endangered Species Act," McCain said.

The largest defense spending item to draw McCain's ire was the $32 million the National Guard spent in 2014 to sponsor NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. and nearly $13 million to sponsor Graham Rahal of the Indy Racing League.

Then there was just over $4 million that went for deals with the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, Major League Soccer and other pro-sports leagues and associations.

Under the NFL deal, state Guard organizations paid NFL teams to have players visit local high school, honor local coaches, or to have in-stadium advertising, a Guard game-day presence, and non-game day use of team facilities, McCain said.

The $225,000 deal between the New England Patriots and the Massachusetts and New Hampshire National Guards also included a "True Patriot" program – a half-time event during home games when the team would recognize members of the National Guard. . "The Guard has claimed that states receive significant return-on-investment from these deals, but has provided no evidence to prove it," McCain said.

Making it worse, he said, is that while the Guard was spending millions on sports advertising, it faced a $101 million shortfall in its payroll account.

The Guard stopped the sponsorships after Congress held hearings on the spending.

McCain also comes down on the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate for coming up empty after awarding a $30 million dollar, multi-year contract with NVS Technologies to come up with a system to easily detect pathogens and other biothreats.

Several years and $23 million later the agency cancelled the project, saying the system was no longer needed because the government could use commercially available technology instead.

But McCain said investigators found that explanation was merely a dodge and that the agency killed the contract because it didn't have adequate standards for documenting its review and oversight of contracts.

Not only that, McCain said, but the Inspector General concluded that the technology was still needed.

Other spending that McCain hits in "America's Most Wasted" includes:

  • $225.3 Million in Social Security overpayments. The money, intended for students and others under age 18 whose parents are retired, deceased or disabled, has been going to unqualified recipients, according to Social Security.
  • $753 million for renovations to the Cannon House office Building. McCain is concerned over the costs and the 10-year timeframe for the work, recalling that the Capitol Visitor Center came in $350 million over budget.
  • $14 million for a catfish inspection office at the Food & Drug Administration. The Department of Agriculture already has such an office, McCain said.
  • $391,000 awarded to the University of Alabama, Birmingham, by the National institute for Health for a dog-bite prevention website. McCain said NIH awarded the grant money even though the same information is available online via the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States.
  • $30,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts for puppet shows in Vermont. The money to the Sandglass Center for Puppetry and Theater Research supports an "Art Works" grant program that, in turn, awards money to groups that create art programs. McCain said Coburn in 2013 called out a $150,000 federal grant used to promote a puppet festival on Long Island, New York.
  • $15,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant to study pollution and health hazards from backyard barbeque grills. The EPA grant to the University of California, Riverside, would is intended to find ways to reduce air pollution and also health hazards related to use of propane powered grills.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com

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