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Back in 2008, Sen. Charles Grassley, Iowa’s pre-eminent watchdog on wasteful spending, sent a letter to George W. Bush about misuse of taxpayer money: “Federal government SUVs and sedans [are left] idling for hours. … Fuel is being wasted by federal employees who have never been instructed to use their common sense to reduce fuel use in their daily job duties.”

Give ’em hell, Chuck!

Back then, with fuel costs rising, Grassley said idling was not only a waste of money, but it made the federal government look “out of touch” with America.

You know what? He was right!

There are dozens of situations where small, thoughtless decisions add up to big money.

So it’s strange to see Grassley do nothing to stop a new, unneeded, $137 million federal courthouse in downtown Des Moines. According to Grassley, he’s helpless against the Government Services Agency machine, which is in charge of the process. All he and other elected officials can do is sit by, like idling SUVs and sedans.

The new federal courthouse would be built along the Des Moines River, almost catty corner from the current federal courthouse on the Des Moines River. It would be 50,000-square-feet larger than the existing courthouse, but would house 36 fewer employees (according to the GSA). That is a remarkable feat considering the existing courthouse is under capacity. The current courthouse building is in great shape, and the site has ample space for expansion or additional security measures — at a fraction of the cost.

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That would leave the currently empty Des Moines River site — where the old YMCA stood — available for a development that would actually enhance the Des Moines Riverwalk.

For these reasons, local opposition to this building has been almost unanimous, with local developers, the Historic East Village, the Downtown Neighborhood Association, the city of Des Moines, Polk County, and the leading editorial voices all opposed.

Frankly, if federal money were raining down on Des Moines, I could probably look the other way on a project like this. But right now, Des Moines Public Schools have to trim their budgets because of reduced Title 1 money for free-and-reduced lunches and deficit expansion means more cuts to programs are coming in the near future to balance the budget.

Back when tax cuts were enacted, Grassley said GDP would only have to increase by a modest 0.8% — but “we’re going to do a lot better than that,” Grassley noted — to prevent the deficit from ballooning.

Now, growth is missing its targets, the deficit is ballooning, but Grassley still gets a $137 million courthouse?

It’s possible Grassley wants his name on a big federal building in Des Moines. That might help boost his grandson Pat’s name recognition when he runs for Chuck’s Senate seat. If that’s the case, Grassley may be happy to know there is space on the current federal courthouse for a name. Talk about a perfect compromise: We could keep the current courthouse, build a new fence for security, mount a new sign proclaiming it the “Charles Grassley Federal-Spending-Watchdog-Extraordinaire Federal Courthouse” and call it a day!

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe, since 2008, Grassley has helped save $137 million in federal fuel costs and so has earned the right to waste our money.

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Mike Draper is the founder and owner of RAYGUN, with locations in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Des Moines. He is also a member of the Historic East Village Board in Des Moines.

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