Federal agencies have shelled out tens of millions of dollars on cars, movie cameras and other items in a contract spending spree that happens across government at the end of every fiscal year.
The State Department dropped more than $33 million on passenger cars in the first two weeks of this month and the Justice Department spent more than $3 million on movie cameras, records show.
Not to be outdone, the U.S. Mint has spent more than $60 million on raw gold and silver. An estimated $66 million has gone to debt collectors trying to claw back money spent on student loans, records show.
All told, roughly 20% of the $500 billion in government spending each year on disclosed contracts is in the fiscal year’s last month, according to watchdog groups. Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst took to the Senate floor Tuesday to denounce this spending pattern and push some of the fixes she has proposed for it.
"‘Tis the season in Washington," Mr. Ernst said. "Government agencies are going on their annual ‘Christmas in September, use-it or lose-it’ shopping spree. If not spent by midnight on September 30th, leftover dollars expire and can no longer be used."
To that end, Ms. Ernst has proposed the End-of-Year Fiscal Responsibility Act. The legislation, which she said has the support of many federal procurement officers, would mandate that spending in the final two months of each fiscal year not exceed the average spent in the previous 10 months.
What has happened year after year is departments, loath to come before appropriators with flush accounts, rush to deplete their coffers, according to Open the Books, a nonprofit group that tracks government spending.
During the final fiscal month last year, taxpayers picked up the tab for lobster tails, video games, golf carts and more, a report at OpenTheBooks.com found. Extrapolating from the past few years to 2019, it appears at least $100 billion will be spent in September.
"There’s a reason why the last week of the fiscal year is called ‘Christmas in September’ for federal contractors," said Adam Andrzejewski, the group’s founder and CEO. "The largest extravaganza of taxpayer abuse in the history of the country is going on right now.
Tens of billions of taxpayer dollars are being wasted in this executive agency spending binge."
The State Department declined to comment on the spending; the Justice Department did not respond to questions about it.
Those agencies were far from alone in records of September spending released by Ms. Ernst’s office.
Among the recent contract spending — which typically amounts to about 8% of all spending this month — is more than $1.6 billion by the Department of Health and Human Services, making HHS the top spending agency in the first two weeks this month, ahead of the Department of Homeland Security ($947 million) and the General Services Administration ($865 million).
The binge tends to accelerate in the last days of the fiscal calendar, Mr. Andrzejewski said.
In the first week of September 2018, disclosed federal contracts accounted for $8 billion in spending. The spending climbed to $18 billion each in weeks two and three before skyrocketing to $53 billion in the final week, OpenTheBooks found.
"Some agencies will spend $1 of every five contracted dollars on the year just in the last week," Mr. Andrzejewski said.
Ms. Ernst has other bills she believes will rein in this spending orgy, such as the Billion Dollar Boondoggle Act, which would require the Office of Management and Budget director to issue an annual report showing every government-funded project that is $1 billion or more over budget or five years or more behind schedule.
In addition, Ms. Ernst is a sponsor of the Presidential Allowance Modernization Act, which has passed the Homeland Security Committee and is sitting on the Senate floor. The chamber also has passed a Cost Openness and Spending Transparency Act that she co-sponsored with Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and James Lankford of Oklahoma.
The first of those bills would limit the perquisites available to future chief executives, while the second is designed to improve transparency on spending and reduce the price tags on all federal projects.
"Iowans sent me to Congress with a specific mission: Cut wasteful spending and make Washington squeal," Ms. Ernst states at the "make ‘em squeal" page on her Senate website.
"Rather than returning the money to taxpayers, binge-buying bureaucrats are wasting billions of taxpayer dollars needlessly," she told senators Tuesday.