Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Another Famous Account of Government Waste was a Lie

If you grew up in the '80's, the story of the $600 toilet seat probably did more than anything else to form your opinion about the supposed inefficiency of government. Unfortunately, the story was a crock.

In 2004 Senator Chuck Grassley (R Iowa) said: "I exposed the spending scandal in the ‘80s when federal bureaucrats saw no problem in spending $600 for a toilet seat . . .". Some now claim that neither that nor his also famous revelation of the Pentagon spending $400 for a hammer actually ever happened. Others say the prices paid were fair and justifiable.

The $600 dollar toilet seat was determined to be "fair and reasonable" by a Naval Contracting Officer, based on his detailed knowledge of the manufacturing processes and degree of effort known to be required from the vendor, to manufacture this item.

The United States military services are often in the position of making equipment last decades longer than originally designed. For example the B-52 bomber is more than 50 years old and expected to be useful for another 20 years. The famous toilet seat came about when about twenty Navy planes had to be rebuilt to extend their service life. The onboard toilets required a uniquely shaped fiberglass piece that had to satisfy specifications for the vibration resistance, weight, and durability. The molds had to be specially made as it had been decades since the planes original production. The price of the "seats" reflected the design work and the cost of the equipment to manufacture them.

The problem arose because the top level drawing for the toilet assembly referred to the part being purchased as a "Toilet Seat" instead of its proper nomenclature of "Shroud". The Navy had made a conscious decision at the time, not to pay the OEM of the aircraft the thousands of dollars it would take to update their top level drawing in order to fix this mistake in nomenclature.

Later some unknown Senate staffer combing lists of military purchases for the Golden Fleece Awards found "Toilet Seat - $600" and trumpeted it to the news media as an example of "government waste." The Senate then wrote into the appropriations bill that this item would not be purchased for anything more than $140.00. The shroud has never been purchased since, as no one can make the shroud at that price.

President Reagan had actually held a televised news conference, where he held up one of these shrouds. During the press conference, he explained the true story. The media of the time, and still today, incorrectly reports that the Pentagon was paying $640.00 for a $12.00 toilet seat.

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