It seems about once a year or so, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) publishes a report on “wasteful” federal spending that he’s eager to cut. The document invariably comes with a great deal of exasperation from the senator, who simply can’t understand why more lawmakers fail to take his findings seriously.
Last week, the Arizona Republican was at it again, writing a piece for Fox News, heralding his work as “a wake-up call for Congress about out-of-control spending.” Of particular interest, he noted “a $50,000 grant to investigate whether African elephants’ unique and highly acute sense of smell could be used to sniff-out bombs.”
The 19-page report (pdf) itself spends a fair amount of time on the bomb-sniffing elephants and the $50,000 grant from three years ago.
“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.
“At a time when the defense budget faces serious cuts under the Budget Control Act of 2011, it is critical that Congress ensures our military branches spend their limited funds on worthwhile programs that effectively and efficiently enhance our military readiness.”
So, does McCain have a point? Not really.
New research conducted in South Africa and involving the US military shows they excel at identifying explosives by smell, stirring speculation about whether their extraordinary ability can save lives.
“They work it out very, very quickly,” said Sean Hensman, co-owner of a game reserve where three elephants passed the smell tests by sniffing at buckets and getting a treat of marula, a tasty fruit, when they showed that they recognized samples of TNT, a common explosive, by raising a front leg.
Another plus: Elephants remember their training longer than dogs, said Stephen Lee, head scientist at the US Army Research Office, a major funder of the research.
Obviously, given elephants’ size, it’s unrealistic to think the animals would be brought to a minefield, but the AP piece noted that unmanned drones could “collect scent samples from mined areas,” and a trained elephant “would then smell them and alert handlers to any sign of explosives.”
A spokesperson for the Army research command added that the better elephants performed, the more researchers could “determine how they do it so that understanding could be applied to the design of better electronic sensors.”
Oh. So, for $50,000 – less than a rounding error in the overall military budget – we’re talking about research that could very well save many American lives on a battlefield.
This was one of the single best examples John McCain and his office could find of “wasteful” government spending.
As we’ve discussed before, part of the underlying problem here is that the Republican senator seems to think publicly funded research involving animals is, practically by definition, hilarious.
In 2009, for example, McCain used Twitter to highlight what he considered “the top 10 pork barrel projects” in the Recovery Act. In one classic example, McCain blasted “$650,000 for beaver management in North Carolina and Mississippi,” asking, “How does one manage a beaver?”
While I’m sure the senator was delighted with his wit, in reality, $650,000 in stimulus funds hired workers to disrupt beaver dams, which in turn prevented significant flood damage to farms, timber lands, roadways, and other infrastructure in the area (which would have ended up costing far more than $650,000). The Arizonan neglected to do his homework, and ended up blasting a worthwhile project for no reason.
In 2012, he did it again with the Farm Bill. As Alex Pareene explained
at the time, McCain isn’t “developing any sort of larger objection to the bill’s priorities or major components,” rather, “McCain just decided to single out the things in the bill that sound the silliest.”
[On Twitter], McCain counted down the 10 “worst projects” funded by the Farm Bill, except by almost any standard they were not at all the worst things funded by the farm bill.
Like No. 6, starting a program to eradicate feral pigs, which McCain clearly included because it involves pigs, allowing him to make a “pork” joke. Except feral pigs are actually a major (and expensive) threat to the environment and property and businesses. And, oh my, $700 million to study moth pheromones! What a waste of money! Except it’s funding the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s competitive grants program, and if you don’t think “grants for scientific research on agriculture” is something the government should be doing, you should make that argument instead of delivering scripted zingers about welfare moths on the floor of the Senate in a pathetic bid at getting some ink for your brave stand against wasteful spending.
What McCain may not realize is that he’s actually helping prove his opponents’ point. If these spending bills were so wasteful, he’d be able to come up with actual examples to bolster his argument, and the fact that he can’t suggests (a) these bills aren’t wasteful at all and (b) the senator needs a new hobby.
For the record, I don’t doubt for a moment that there’s some unnecessary spending in the federal budget, and responsible policymakers should make every effort to prevent waste. But the more McCain thinks he’s good at this, the more he proves otherwise.