A muffin.
John Gress / Reuters

When it comes to fleecing taxpayers, go big or go home

Updated
The political world went a little berserk in the fall of 2011, focusing on, of all things, muffins. An inspector general’s report found evidence of wasteful spending at Justice Department conferences and, at Republicans’ insistence, the political media soon held up the $16 muffin as a symbol of the federal government wasting taxpayer money.
 
In reality, as long-time readers may recall, there was no $16 muffin. But never mind the facts; there was a new totem for journalists and lawmakers to obsess over. Paul Waldman explained today, “There were front-page articles in newspapers, but the real heat came from conservative media, particularly Fox News, which blasted the government for spending so much for muffins…. That story contained everything Fox wanted its viewers to believe about government employees fleecing taxpayers.”
 
Three years later, it’s interesting that stories like these get so much less attention.
Northrop Grumman improperly charged the U.S. government more than $100 million in “questionable” costs on a contract, according to a Defense Department inspector general’s report.
 
The report found that from October 2007 through March 2013, the major defense contractor “did not properly charge labor rates” for a counter-narcoterrorism contract, and that the Army agency in charge of the contract did not ensure that the people performing the work had the necessary qualifications. The agency also did not review invoices for millions of dollars of overtime, the report said.
The wrongdoing apparently came to investigators’ attention when someone billed $176,900 for 1,208 hours in a 12-day period. Since that would require more than 100 hours of work per day – some thieves really aren’t good at arithmetic – the Pentagon’s inspector general’s office decided to take a closer look.
 
Waldman added, “Back when the muffin story broke, I wrote a post about it and did a Google News search, which produced 443 articles about the muffins in the prior 24 hours. How many stories do you think there have been in the last 24 hours about Northrop Grumman’s $100 million overcharge (I suppose we might even call it ‘fraud’) of the American taxpayer?”
 
The answer is one: a piece buried in the middle of yesterday’s Washington Post, which generated no discernible attention at all from the political world that was fascinated, if not actually obsessed, with $16 muffins that, in the end, didn’t exist.
 
It’s worth appreciating why this happens.
 
Clearly, the kind of culprit matters. A government bureaucrat may be overpaying for breakfast? That’s literally front page news. Some schmo abuses food stamps? That guy will be featured on Fox News every day, several times a day, for years. Some publicly financed scientific research can be manipulated to sound foolish? That’s the sort of thing congressional Republicans will find fascinating.
 
But if one of the world’s largest defense contractors is accused of overcharging taxpayers for more than $100 million, no one seems to give a darn.
 
Clearly, it’s a go-big-or-go-home issue, but it’s also a question of ideological predispositions. The political world is repulsed when there’s a perception of excess benefits going to the poor or the public sector, but if a multi-billion-dollar corporation is accused, we give it a nice euphemism: “potentially excessive payments.”
 
Waldman added some compelling questions: Pretty much every Republican in town decries wasteful government spending. So will we be seeing them holding angry press conferences condemning Northrop Grumman? Will they demand a select committee to investigate this matter, perhaps some criminal indictments? How about other defense contract overruns?”
 
If GOP officials suddenly start lumping Northrop Grumman and ACORN together, I’ll be very impressed, but I have a hunch Republicans won’t much care.
 

Government Spending

When it comes to fleecing taxpayers, go big or go home

Updated