Not sure what to buy the millionaire golfer who has everything? For Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, the answer was a $30,000 gold medal for Jack Nicklaus, at taxpayer expense.
Or what's behind an obscure bill to funnel federal funds to chiropractors?
Perhaps that's answered by the seven contributions from the American Chiropractic Association to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, in the months before the legislation was introduced. Three more contributions came afterwards.
Congress may be deadlocked and unproductive, but that doesn’t mean lawmakers aren’t trying to spend tax dollars. In fact, the dysfunction is what keeps them from spending far more of it.
Most of the public's attention focuses on bills that are are about to become law and that enact significant changes.
But only a tiny fraction of legislation introduced actually becomes law. If it were up to individual lawmakers, many more measures would be approved and taxpayers would be spending much more, including in some unexpected and even bizarre ways.
Some of these rarely-mentioned bills would spend massive amounts of money, like $500 million for monthly payments to 10,000 World War II merchant mariners, courtesy of Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif.
These merchant mariners were civilians on private boats making commercial deliveries who played an auxiliary role in World War II. Many of them were wounded or killed.
In 1988, a federal judge ordered that they be considered veterans. Hahn's bill targets mariners who missed out on benefits offered to veterans in military combat branches.
Hahn represents a coastal area near Long Beach, Calif. The International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, which describes itself as "a voice in Washington, D.C., for the domestic maritime industry and America’s Merchant Marine," was her 12th-largest campaign contributor in 2012.
But smaller-scale bills also lend a sense of the frivolity that takes up much of Congress’ time.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., would spend $6 million for a "Commission on Americans Living Abroad" that would "conduct a study of how federal laws and policies affect U.S. citizens living abroad."
Sen. Chuck Schumer, another New York Democrat, wants $80 million to promote the tapping of trees for maple syrup.
Others sought to funnel "such sums as may be necessary" in taxpayer cash to narrow groups of Americans, like Rep. Maxine Waters' Minority Diabetes Initiative Act.
Then there is the $10 million provided by Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller for the West Virginia National Heritage Area Act.
A lawmaker from a corn-producing state, Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, would have spent $1 billion on the "Biofuels Market Expansion Act of 2013."
Other obscure proposed expenditures of huge sums include the $1 billion-plus that Rep. Rubin Hinojosa, D-Texas, and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., would spend on adult education, and the $3.6 billion Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., would spend paying tuition for science and math teachers.
All of these examples are drawn from a new Washington Examiner data feature called “Appropriate Appropriations?”, which relies on bills from the Library of Congress that were marked up by the Cato Institute in its Deepbills project.
(For totals in the above interactive graphic, we excluded legislation that was obviously reauthorizing existing programs. But some high-dollar bills remained even though they would not actually add to the national debt because they would replace or retool existing programs.)
"Appropriate Appropriations?" shows bills at any stage — some that have been introduced and will be promptly forgotten, others that make their way out of committee and to a floor vote — that contain monetary appropriations.
The Appropriate Appropriations? page, found under the Data tab, is updated daily and can also be found as a widget to the right of many Examiner stories. Click any bill to get more information from GovTrack.
In a blog post about the feature, Jim Harper of Cato pointed out that it’s seldom helpful to rail against generic “waste, fraud and abuse,” a phrase so tired that it has lost its meaning.
It's more useful to point out specific examples so that real action can be taken. This feature allows readers to do just that, including filtering to see what the senators and representatives of a specific state are doing.
The tool is also useful for watching for pay-to-play deals. Small-time bills introduced by back-bench congressmen are more likely to lead straight to financial backers than legislation with greater visibility.
Take, for example, the recently defeated Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio.
Of the handful of bills she introduced, some dealt with transportation of goods -- UPS is a top Schmidt contributor -- while another would have helped uranium enrichment firm USEC Inc. get a loan guarantee. USEC was also a top Schmidt donor.
Another Schmidt bill, one dealing with bedbugs, would "award grants through Sept. 30, 2017, to three state agencies … to supplement ongoing bed bug prevention and mitigation activities. (Requires at least one of the three grants to be awarded to a state agency that before November 1, 2009, submitted a public health exemption request which proposed a pesticide use to control bed bugs but which was voluntarily canceled.)”
The National Pest Control Association is a top Schmidt donor, and Ohio officials had "submitted a public health exemption request which proposed a pesticide use to control bed bugs but ... voluntarily canceled" it.