Why We’re Not ‘Grateful’ for Tom Coburn

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    Illustration by Louise Leong.

    Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) recently came out with a “top 10” list of wasteful government spending. No. 4 on the list was the $615,000 federal grant given to UC Santa Cruz to digitize the library’s Grateful Dead archive. Although it is important to identify unnecessary costs during this recession, Coburn unfairly singled out UCSC and misrepresented the facts about exactly where the money was going.

    The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded UCSC the federal funds to digitize Grateful Dead “photographs, tickets, backstage passes, flyers, shirts and other memorabilia,” according to Coburn’s list.

    This is true, but what Coburn fails to point out is that the digitization that the archives will undergo is an innovative process that earned the title of “National Leadership Project” by the IMLS. This process will also help protect and archive other non-Grateful Dead related texts and literature.

    As UCSC librarian Virginia Steel told the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the project received a grant not because of the Grateful Dead but because of the archival digitizing itself.

    “The goal is not the digitization of the Grateful Dead Archive but to create a socially constructed archive which allows individuals access to material,” Steel said in the Sentinel. “Then people can help in the identification of materials and also upload their own relevant materials.”

    Coburn was wrong to underplay the importance of updating libraries to remain relevant and useful, but there was also a problem with the entire top 10 list: All of the spending projects he identified are discretionary. Discretionary spending goes to different projects every year, which Congress votes on without needing to change any laws.

    Non-discretionary spending, on the other hand, includes items like Social Security, Medicare and other expenses that are built into law. The senator undoubtedly created the list in hopes of being seen as a budget hawk — a true fiscal conservative who is serious about reducing spending.

    But all of the projects on the list are discretionary spending, which only makes up about a quarter of all government spending.

    If Coburn were truly serious about cutting spending, he’d target non-discretionary programs, as well as the huge money suction tubes that are the wars in the Middle East, rather than small library grants. Coburn’s website and political ads bill him as a budget reducer. If he’s serious about that, he should go after substantial amounts of spending, an action which might not be popular in Congress, instead of taking easy shots by demonizing the purportedly wasteful hippies at UCSC. It’s clear the Oklahoma senator cares more about politics than fiscal responsibility.