Commentary: The Feds are Putting Lipstick on Pork

Commentary by Adam Andrzejewski originally published by RealClearPolicy.com

Over the past two years, America has been faced with a seemingly endless torrent of bad news. The often feeble response from Washington brings to mind a popular metaphor among the political chattering class: putting lipstick on a pig.

It means taking a policy failure or bad situation and sprucing it up to make the outlook seem sunnier. That could mean a meaningless nod toward a solution, or just some verbal sleight of hand.

Examples abound. The baby formula shortage resulted in a belated, insufficient effort to fly product in from Europe, barely making a dent in the problem. Airlines struggled to meet pre-pandemic demand, so their CEO’s received a stern Zoom call from Transportation Secretary Buttigieg. Grocery store bills went up, prompting accusations of greedy collusion among meat purveyors, not acknowledgement of the obvious overspending.

These examples, in a nutshell, are putting lipstick on a pig. So is the Biden ‘response’ to the massive increase in the price of gas: releasing few barrels of oil from the strategic reserve and proposing to freeze the federal gas tax — saving people $20 for the summer.

So, OpenTheBooks.com delved into the trillions in federal expenditures and compiled our annual waste report, Where’s the Pork? We discovered it doesn’t stop at lipstick. The federal government has a whole metaphorical makeup department permanently staffed.

If veterans can’t get appointments with doctors at Veterans Affairs, no problem. When veterans finally get in the office, it’s well appointed. The VA employs 202 interior designers.

We found, as of 2020, fifteen federal agencies were employing 312 full-time designers making an average base salary of $90,000 plus benefits. Eighty-four of them made six-figure salaries, with the highest-paid collecting $170,800. All told, it cost the taxpayer $28 million, plus at least 30 percent in healthcare, pension and benefits, which brings that cost above $33 million.

Like most of Washington, the army of interior designers has only grown. In the final year of the Obama administration, 270 of them raked in $22.1 million in base salary. That year, the VA also coded $20 million worth of high-end, luxury artwork as “furniture” in their spending reports.

A walk down memory lane holds another egregious example of furnishing budgets (or lack thereof). The Environmental Protection Agency spent $92.4 million over a decade to buy, rent, install and store office furniture for new spaces.

Luxury furniture maker Herman Miller sold them a conference table that cost an eye-popping $15,571, and a single chair with a price tag of $4,047. One desk “for a right-handed executive” cost us $3,959. Five computer workstations were no more a bargain at $28,290. With a little over 15,000 employees, the EPA spent an average of roughly $6,000 per employee on furniture alone.

One might wonder how the EPA could justify such outrageous expense. The agency was relocating to the D.C. suburbs and claimed the old furniture did not fit; of course, it wasn’t long before the EPA picked up and moved right back to D.C. in an attempt to save on leases.

Elsewhere in the cosmetics section of the federal bureaucracy are the professional wordsmiths. Washington spends billions on public affairs professionals tasked with breaking the bad news to us gently and with panache.

Don’t like the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan? The State Department bureaucrats can dress that up with a fleet of public relations officers. Is there really an illegal-entrant crisis on our southern border? Homeland Security employs nearly 500 PR officers to tell you that everything will be okay.

Between 2007 and 2014, the federal government spent $4.4 billion on their salaries and benefits, as well as contracts with outside public relations firms.

In 2014, there were 3,092 public relations officers – known to journalists as “press flacks” – in over 200 federal agencies. By 2020, the headcount of PR officers rose to 3,847 with more than half of them, 2,364 making six figures in base pay alone.

Last year, when Dr. Anthony Fauci was on seemingly every news program in the country, the National Institutes of Health alone was paying no fewer than 86 public relations officers. The CDC and FDA collectively employed 81 additional PR officers.

These figures essentially make the federal government world’s second largest public relations firm.

So, the next time a pundit uses the old “lipstick on a pig” adage, just remember that it’s taxpayers being charged for cosmetic improvements – both literal and figurative – every single day.

Nothing rankles taxpayers more than PR officers telling taxpayers that the federal government needs to spend even more taxpayer money on a larger size and scope of government — while they enjoy the shabby chic vibe.
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Adam Andrzejewski is the CEO and founder of OpenTheBooks.com, the largest private database of U.S. public-sector expenditures.