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They got how much to study that?!

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WASHINGTON -- Senator John Sidney McCain III called us together the other day to mock some of the gifts that have since been given out like gumdrops by the man who beat him.

At McCain's side was Doctor Tom Coburn of Muskogee, Oklahoma, a Republican senator, Southern Baptist deacon, anti-abortion obstetrician, and (to flog a dead rhetorical horse) political maverick whose pony canters so widely from his party's centre that he voted against funding the last two years of the war in Iraq.

We were in a small conference room just outside the Senate gallery. The two lawgivers were handing out their second "Stimulus Checkup," a list of 100 projects that have received federal funds since Santa Claus took office.

You may recall that, early this year, President Barack Obama relieved the Treasury of $787 billion, added it to the national debt, labelled it the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act," and crowed about how many millions of jobs would be created by this act of inflationary charity. (That was three million lost jobs ago.)

What you may not recall is that, according to the McCain-Coburn Stimulus Checkup, the recipients included:

What you may not recall is that, according to the McCain-Coburn Stimulus Checkup, the recipients included:

"ö $187,632 to Michigan State University to prevent its collection of insect specimens from being devoured by beetles;

"ö $219,000 to the National Institutes of Health to study whether female college students are more likely to have casual sex when they are drunk;

"ö $21,116 to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to costume employees as "Bobber the Safety Dog"

"ö $700,000 to enable fishermen in the Pacific Northwest to search from ships and aircraft for lost crab pots that retail for $19.95 each;

"ö $133 million to "green" an 18-storey federal office building in Portland, Oregon by covering the entire structure in vegetation, and so on for 55 pages.

Senator McCain's ire was especially aroused by grants to two of Arizona's major universities to examine the genetically driven division of labour in colonies of ants.

"Maybe we should give a grant to study the genetic makeup of the United States Senate," he sniffed. And both men decried the fact that so much money seemed to be going to effete academics rather than to real Americans with Dickies and power tools.

Indeed, this seemed to be so: $8,408 to Florida Atlantic University to research the impact of alcohol on the "spatial navigation" of mice; $221,355 to the University of Indiana to study why young men do not like to wear condoms. Not that $8,408 is a very large sum when you're talking about $787 billion.

So I raised my hand and, with uncharacteristic aplomb, called out to the senators, "As far as I know, when the unemployment rate is calculated, an out-of-work professor and an out-of-work bridge-builder count as one each. Are you saying that some jobs are more 'real' than others?"

"If you really want to create a job in this country," Sen. Coburn shot back, "you've got to MAKE something."

As it happened, boondoggle No. 85 on the McCain-Coburn list focused on a quaint little village just a few miles from my house. "Town Doesn't Know What to Do With Money ($25,000)," the handout claimed. So I drove up to Sykesville, Maryland, to fact-check the famous fact-checkers and see if this was true.

It was and it wasn't. Indeed, Sykesville's town manager had been told that he could apply for 25 grand as the hamlet's share of a state-wide campaign called "EmPOWERing Clean Energy." Not a dime had yet been spent, but this wasn't a scam: The solons of Sykesville hadn't decided whether to put a new water heater in the town hall or replace the furnace at police headquarters.

"It's not for lack of ideas," said the cordial and angular manager, Matt Candland, a former basketball player at Brigham Young University. "Trust me, twenty-five thousand wouldn't be enough to even START doing what we need to do around here."

Even in Sykesville, Maryland -- population 4,197 -- it wasn't really about the money. It was about the politics, about who won, like Barack Obama, and who lost, like John McCain.

"We're a pretty conservative county, so with a Democratic governor, we're not expecting to see much," Candland shrugged. "Democratic areas are getting HUGE amounts of money. That's just the nature of the beast."

I showed him the McCain-Coburn report, which made note of the $389,357 paid to the State University of New York at Buffalo to study young adults who smoke marijuana and drink high-alcohol malt liquor at the very same time.

"It's easy to take the view that, because THIS is frivolous, then EVERYTHING is frivolous," Candland said. And, indeed, that was what Coburn and McCain were insinuating with their accusation that "billions of dollars of stimulus funding have been wasted, mismanaged, or directed towards silly and short-sighted projects."

"But really," I teased the town manager. "Two hundred and twenty-one thousand to study why young men don't like to wear condoms?"

"They don't have to do a study on that one," Candland said. "I can tell 'em why that is myself."

 

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn born Canadian journalist based in Washington D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 12, 2009 H1

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