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Are $16 Muffins to Blame for Our Financial Crisis?

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The Justice Department has been spending $16 per muffin at the conferences it hosts, according to a federal auditor. The ridiculously high sticker price on a bakery item that is nothing more than flour, baking soda, eggs, butter, sugar and a handful of blueberries stunned bloggers and politicians alike. And for good reason: Who the hell pays $16 for a muffin when at most they cost $4 for a giant one?

Apparently the U.S. federal government, that’s who. To make it worse, the Justice Department was also dropping $5 per meatball, $8 for cups of coffee and tea, and $32 for boxes of Cracker Jacks. And you wonder why there is a debt crisis in DC?

“The Justice Department appears to be blind to the economic realities our country is facing,” complained Republican Senator Charles Grassley.

Bloomberg has more on Muffingate:

U.S. Justice Department agencies spent too much for food at conferences, in one case serving $16 muffins and in another dishing out beef Wellington appetizers that cost $7.32 per serving, an audit found. ”Some conferences featured costly meals, refreshments, and themed breaks that we believe were indicative of wasteful or extravagant spending,” the Justice Department’s inspector general wrote in a report released today.

The inspector general reviewed a sample of 10 Justice Department conferences held between October 2007 and September 2009 at a cost of $4.4 million, a period that included the administrations of Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama. The Justice Department spent $73.3 million on conferences in fiscal 2009, compared with $47.8 million a year earlier, according to the report.

The muffins were served at an August 2009 conference of the Executive Office for Immigration Review and the beef Wellington was offered at a February 2008 meeting hosted by the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. A March 2009 conference of the Office on Violence Against Women served Cracker Jack, popcorn and candy bars at a single break, costing $32 per person, according to the report.

The report is a follow-up to one from 2007 that found the Justice Department had few controls to limit the costs of conference planning, food and beverages. That audit cited a reception that included Swedish meatballs costing $5 apiece.

In April 2008 the Justice Department issued policies and procedures designed to control conference spending. The new report found that agencies were able to “circumvent meal and refreshment cost limits” when conferences were planned under cooperative agreements, a type of funding awarded by a Justice Department agency.

Conor Dugan, a former Justice Department attorney now at Bancroft PLLC, admits regular people didn’t miss out on much. “They certainly didn’t have any of that good stuff at anything I was at. Or if they did, it was overpriced crap,” he tells The Atlantic Wire. “I remember crappy wraps and small sandwiches and pop. Nothing extravagant.”

If you’re going to spend all that money it better not be something you can buy at Dunkin’ Donuts.

Mother Jones’ political blogger Kevin Drum insists the $16 muffin is just a fabricated myth. “In fact, it’s obvious that someone quite carefully calculated the amount they were allowed to spend and then gave the hotel a budget. The hotel agreed, but for some reason decided to divide up the charges into just a few categories instead of writing a detailed invoice for every single piece of food they provided,” Drums writes. “This is unremarkable. In fact, I’m here to tell you that this happens All. The. Time.”

Drum argues the catering company was given a budget and then on the itemized receipt only used a few choice categories to represent expenses. And that’s where the $16 muffin comes from. Once bloggers and the media seized onto that number, well, it didn’t seem like anybody was interesting in correcting it.

Still, he says, the DOJ probably did significantly over-pay for their catering expenses. Even assuming the high cost of hotel-catered food, it seems ridiculous that the Justice Department would have nearly $80 million to spend on conferences every year. But, apparently they do.

CBS News chief legal analyst Andrew Cohen calls this a “bipartisan mess.” And he’s right. It’s bureaucracy run amok. Granted, the money being spent probably wouldn’t make much of a difference in the grand scope of the federal budget, but this sort of spending is endemic of the problems in Washington.

Where are the checks and balances to prevent this sort of thing from happening?

In a letter to the U.S. Attorney General, Congressman Frank Wolf added, “It is clear that while American taxpayers were tightening their belts and making difficult financial decisions, the department was splurging on wasteful snacks.”  Indeed.

Hot Air‘s AllahPundit quips, “I know you’re angry, but don’t forget that DOJ made some extra cash this year selling AK-47s to Mexican drug cartels.” On the matter of the $5.57 sodas, he adds, “That’s a fair price if you’re in a stadium watching football, less so if you’re in a ballroom watching Eric Holder sweat while he ducks questions about who knew what vis-a-vis Operation Fast & Furious. ”

More than anything it’s proof-positive that the U.S. government has gotten too big. That’s not to go all Tea Party and advocate for budget cuts and the dismantling of departments and programs; it’s only to say that one administration can’t oversee the entire thing. That much is true. An administration puts its concentration in some areas and lets other necessary areas go soft. It happened with Bush in the War on Terror, and it happened to Obama with his push for health care. In both instances, the economy took the punches.

Lost in the debate about the budget crisis and taxes and unemployment and whether Obama can get reelected is the better question of what we need our government for in 2011. What are the essential services our government must provide for its citizens, and then how does it efficiently provide those services? Until we answer those questions, we can’t begin to properly restructure the government to meet those needs.

If the Justice Department is spending $8 on a cup of coffee and $16 for muffins, and there’s nothing to prevent that from happening, can we safely assume this waste is unequivocally happening in other federal departments? Further, if they are dumb enough or callous enough to spend that kind of money on muffins and coffee, how do we trust them to be financially prudent in other non-food related areas?

There answer is we can’t. Sure, it may just be muffins, and $16 muffins aren’t really to blame for the budget crisis, but muffins are a metaphor for problems that ail the U.S. government.

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