Would it be possible to get Congress to fund a museum about all the money that Congress wastes?
That’s the premise behind a movie, “The Museum of Government Waste,” to be released later this year by documentarians Jim and Ellen Hubbard.
I first met Jim Hubbard 17 years ago when he was sitting across my editor’s desk at the Malvern Daily Record interviewing for a reporter’s job. I didn’t hire him — although obviously I should have — but we’ve stayed in touch through the years.
Hubbard, a native of Bismarck, Ark., became interested in the nation’s growing national debt when Ross Perot made it his principle issue during the 1992 presidential campaign. After watching with alarm as the debt began to rise this past decade, he and Ellen decided to address the issue — but to do it in an entertaining way.
“A film just on the federal budget could be a real snoozer,” he told me. “If you just went over facts and figures, who would really pay attention to that? As every film in Hollywood, we needed a hook.”
The hook was to focus on one part of the budget-making process, earmarks, which are single line-items inserted into the federal budget by a congressman for a particular project. That’s how we get taxpayer-funded boondoggles such as Alaska’s infamous $400 million “bridge to nowhere.” “The earmark process was almost kind of like a window into the soul of Congress and how our government functions or doesn’t function,” he said.
The Hubbards decided to see how far Congress would go, so they employed a Dallas radio host, Greg Knapp, to roam the corridors of power trying to obtain government money to fund a museum about the unnecessary expenditures of government money. At times they were open about their intentions. At other times, one of the Hubbards wore a hidden camera. They even paid $1,500 to attend a congressional fundraiser undercover.
“Security was tight and they were kicking people out left and right, but frankly, Greg and Ellen looked the part and they wrote out their $1,500 check, and what can you say? They’re not going to turn that down, so they walked right in,” Hubbard said.
The five-year process of making the movie was illuminating. Already a political junkie, Hubbard was struck by the perniciousness of Washington’s pay for play culture, by the power of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, by the extent that members of Congress do not and cannot read the enormous bills on which they vote, and by the power of congressional staffs. ‘You have a lot of 20-somethings, early 30-somethings who are writing legislation and running the country. … In some ways it seems like our government is almost on autopilot and simultaneously out of control,” he said.
Congress temporarily has banned the use of earmarks, but Hubbard says his film remains as relevant as before. Money is still finding its way into unnecessary congressional pet projects — through the use, for example, of “phonemarks,” where a member of Congress calls a federal agency and strong-arms it into spending money.
Ironically, Hubbard prefers congressional earmarks to this new process because the old way was more transparent and more reflective of the proper taxing and spending role of Congress. He’s not necessarily against earmarks. He would just like to see a lot less bad ones.
He says people of all political persuasions will appreciate the film’s message.
“Our film is not a partisan film,” he said. “We criticize both parties because they’re both equally to blame and frankly, when it comes to spending, yes, the priorities may be a little bit different, but not much. I don’t see much difference between these parties, to be honest with you.”
The Hubbards have been working with the Taxpayers Protection Alliance to fund an actual Museum of Government Waste they plan to launch in Washington at the same time the film begins appearing in theaters. Will that museum be partially funded by taxpayers via an earmark? You and I will have to watch the movie to find out.
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at Arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.