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OpinionOpEd

Small things are sometimes more telling of government dysfunction

In this Nov. 7, 2014 file photo, President

In this Nov. 7, 2014 file photo, President Barack Obama meets with Congressional leaders in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House in Washington. Photo Credit: AP

Most of the ubiquitous reviews of 2014 center on the obvious - the rise of the Islamic State, the Republican resurgence at the election polls, the tension between minorities and the police. But often it is the small things that occurred in the year that are mainly overlooked that offer startling proof of governmental dysfunction that borders on malfeasance.

The late Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin used to review these events on a yearly basis and nominate them for what he called "Golden Fleece" awards for their ridiculous audacity. They were sometimes humorous but more frequently atrocious examples of waste at taxpayer expense. Proxmire would have loved highlighting one such project that is almost a perfect example of callous bureaucratic and political disregard for the public's financial welfare not uncommon in these environs.

Most of us have heard of the "bridge to nowhere," the much maligned attempt to build at a substantial cost a structure at public expense that led to an Alaskan island where only 50 people lived. Now comes news of an even more flamboyant misuse of our money - yours and mine. More startling is the fact that it is the result of an obvious conspiracy between one of the nation's former glamour agencies, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Congress.

This monument to how to bilk the taxpayers is a NASA test tower in Mississippi that was meant for a space project that was cancelled four years before it was completed this year at a cost of $349 million. It has been mothballed seemingly for eternity or for at least only God and NASA and maybe one of its chief benefactors, Sen. Roger Wicker a Mississippi Republican, knows how long at an estimated annual cost of $700,000 to maintain it. Actually, according to the Washington Post, which recently revealed this smelly business based on a NASA inspector general's report, the tower could cost considerably more to make it operational if it ever was needed.

The Post said the project's manager in NASA decided that it was completed enough to satisfy Congress and shut it down in June. The inspector general's report issued last January stated that the A-3 test stand was to be completed by 2010 at an estimated cost of between $163 million and $185 million. However, it said, construction of the test stand took three years longer than estimated and the cost went up substantially. That's an old story in this town where no government project ever seems to cost what is expected or is completed on time.

But in this case it didn't make any difference because by 2010, the program whose engine it was supposed to test was shutdown.

Then why complete it? The short explanation would be that at some time, it may be useful. In the words of a an old craps player, Congress decided it should bet on the come although the odds of that occurring are not only long, the amount needed to outfit the stand properly also could be prohibitive by then.

This odyssey, of course, is less about space - further trips to the moon and manned flights to Mars and so forth than it is about plain old venality, the kind that helps politicians get elected by spending U.S. treasury money on meaningless projects.

As a young correspondent in this burg some 50 years ago I wrote about a similar NASA boondoggle.

This one was the construction of a large plant in Oklahoma to produce boron missile fuel. The driving force behind the project was Sen. Robert S. Kerr, who was chairing the committee that oversaw NASA's then blossoming space projects. The missile fuel was never produced and the government sold everything from fire engines to cafeteria equipment for pennies on the dollar, a very large loss. Kerr had died by the time the whole thing became public knowledge.

If there is an event as we close the year of dramatic news that should stir outrage among Americans because of its lack of complexity, its straight forward example of misappropriation of public funds, the tower scam should be it. Those involved in the decisions surrounding it, including the members of Congress who helped engineer it, probably should be transported to outer space permanently.

The whirring sound emanating from the edifice's locked door is the ghost of William Proxmire.

Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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