The $16 Muffin

It only took only hours for the "$16 Muffin" to enter the Washington political lexicon – right beside the $500 Pentagon hammer and the Bridge To Nowhere. The diatribes about government waste came fast and loud, from the halls of Congress to the pages of the Post and Times. The only problem: it wasn’t true.

The source seemed impeccable: the well-respected Inspector General of the Department of Justice, whose 148-page audit report mentioned the muffins nine times. The IG reported that taxpayer money was squandered on muffins served at a Washington hotel for a five-day conference in 2009 for the Justice Department to train 534 judges, lawyers and paralegals on the rules for deporting immigrants.

It turned out the cost for the muffins -- along with a full continental breakfast and afternoon snack -- was under $15 per person daily. The same continental breakfast alone cost guests at that hotel twice as much, even without the snack.

It turned out the bagels, crossaints, cookies, brownies and chips that came with the morning muffins were mistakenly listed on the hotel invoice for the afternoon snack. So the muffin math didn't initially add up for the auditors. By the time they recomputed, “Muffingate” was already viral. Small-print corrections won’t do much for the hotel kitchen staff who lose hours as federal agencies suspend future conferences to review menu costs. And if that old $500 hammer is any indication, we’ll hear for years -- or at least until next November -- about $16 federal muffins as yet another symbol of federal excess.

This isn’t an argument for bloated federal perks. Far from it. From the Tea Party to MoveOn, Americans are angry at a political elite that can’t or won’t tell the truth about our problems. The message is: debate the solutions aggressively. Maybe that’s even why we elected a divided government. But before ranting, get the basic facts right.

In this case, the misinformation came not from agenda-driven politicians, but from a usually responsible source. But whether it’s about stale conference muffins, global warming or Social Security -- the more careless hyperbole in our public rhetoric, the less likely Washington will ever get anything worthwhile done.

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