Thursday, September 22, 2011

So I Asked Starbucks For The Government Discount ...

... and they charged me $16 for a muffin.

Congress and the Washington media are in a frenzy over MuffinGate, and Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell has had about enough of it:

The latest tempest in a teapot in this season of austerity? Congressional outrage over the Justice Department's spending on food and beverages at one of its conferences in 2009. An inspector general's audit report [here] found that the department paid $4,200 for 250 muffins and $2,880 for 300 cookies and brownies.

"By itemizing these costs, with service and gratuity, muffins cost over $16 each and cookies and brownies cost almost $10 each," the report reads.

-- snip --

OK, let's stipulate that spending $16, or even $10, for a muffin is excessive, and a waste of taxpayer money. But give me a break -- this kind of spending is hardly the problem.

Not only are spiraling health-care costs the real cause of America's long-term budget woes -- something Congress has done hardly anything to address -- but defense spending is by far the biggest chunk of annual discretionary spending. The Pentagon can't even pass an audit, and won't be able to do so until 2017, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's Senate testimony today. With the enthusiastic patronage of Congress, the U.S. military spends tens of billions of dollars on weapons systems that either don't work as adverstised (Future Combat Systems, anyone?), cost far more than budgeted (all of them), or are wholly unnecessary (remember the Kafkaesque fight over the Joint Strike Fighter's "alternate engine"?).

The Justice Department's entire budget request for 2012 is $28 billion -- less than what the U.S. spends in Iraq and Afghanistan in three months. Before it was cut to only $200 million in July, the Pentagon's budget for military bands was $325 million. Military bands!

But by all means, rant about the muffins...

Truth to tell, the $16 muffin meme is a bit off-base anyway since DOJ was really paying for hotel meeting space rather than fancy noshes, as the New York Times calmly explained yesterday:

A five-day conference in August 2009 at the Capital Hilton in Washington to train immigration lawyers saved money by serving only snacks. But it still cost $4,200 for 250 muffins and $2,880 for 300 cookies and brownies, more than $16 a muffin and nearly $10 per cookie and brownie.

- snip --

Moreover, the department told auditors that some food costs were exaggerated because of the way deals with the hotels were often structured: the hotels provided “free” meeting space in exchange for an agreement to use their pricey food and beverage services.

Planners often did no cost-benefit analysis to determine whether it would have been thriftier to pay for the meeting space directly and obtain cheaper catering, the report said. But it noted that the conferences often ended up spending tens of thousands more on food and beverage than the minimum necessary to secure the “free” meeting rooms.

DOJ was spending other people's (tax) money on this training conference, and they spent it with predictable abandon. But how much damage can they possibly do with their comparatively small budget?

Meanwhile, Congress has appropriated $1.283 trillion in the last ten years for military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs, and veterans’ health care for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, with no end in sight.


Anonymous said...

Great Post TSB! And humorous too!
Healthcare costs totally out of control are ruining the whole debt future. I think "Mr. Butters" will fight you tooth and nail over any cuts to bands or muffins! Those Army Band guys really do work hard and a lot of the expense is flying all over by chopper for memorials. gwb

TSB said...

I'll give military bands a pass. At least they produce something.

But nation-building? Not so much.

Anonymous said...

Agreed! and great post on the Iranian
hikers. gwb

Anonymous said...

Costco has the best huge muffins and they are 6 for $4. I bet the super comittee will spend a couple days on that outrageous issue! They bake em right in the store. gwb

Anonymous said...

I've been to one similar put on by DOJ. Five course three star lunch meals during a week long seminar on contract fraud.

Lovin' it!

TSB said...

I had fantastic bennies while at the World Bank. Everything was catered by Marriott, executive dining rooms were available for most any meeting, etc., and I developed a real taste for salmon and brie. But nothing like that in recent years.