A boondoggle is a wasteful or extravagant project with no practical value. Usually, a boondoggle makes use of public funds and carries at least a whiff of corruption.
The word boondoggle dates back at least to the 1920s, when it was the name for a harmless boy scout craft. Scouts used their downtime to make lanyards and bracelets, and the craft was known as boondoggling.
Then, in 1935, the New York Times reported that the Works Progress Administration (WPA) had funded a 3-million-dollar program to teach white collar workers shadow puppetry and boondoggling. In theory, the program was training people to teach underprivileged kids how to make arts and crafts out of reusable materials. However, readers were horrified at the sum being spent on lanyards. From that day on, boondoggling has been synonymous with wasteful government spending.
In 2012, The Atlantic wrote about what it called “the Federal government’s $10 billion plutonium boondoggle.” The magazine warned that, even as they wrangled over the details of a new student loan plan, both Democrats and Republicans were throwing away money in a “plutonium pit.”
From The Atlantic:
Some members of Congress are trying to restore billions in funding for a new factory at the Los Alamos National Laboratory to make plutonium cores for nuclear bombs that the military doesn’t need. Meanwhile, President Obama is plowing ahead with plans to make plutonium fuel rods for power reactors that no power company wants to buy. Together, construction costs for these two radioactive white elephants add up to over $10 billion, and rising.
In 2015, CNBC had a piece titled “The $20 Million Political Boondoggle That Just Won’t Die” about an elaborate project which involved shipping coal from the hills of eastern Pennsylvania all the way to the town of Kaiserslauntern in Germany. The coal in question was used by a large US military installation, where people were under strict orders to burn only the anthracite coal shipped from the US. CNBC reported that the cost to taxpayers was $20 million per year – not even accounting for the cost of transport.
Boondoggle is often used in ways that are roughly synonymous with “slush funds” and “grifting.” In 2020, amid the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, politicians started throwing around accusations about boondoggles. Lisa McCormick, a candidate for US Congress from New Jersey, has been critiquing the “COVID boondoggle.” McCormick said that relief funds appropriated by Congress to ease the economic pain of the global pandemic had been misapplied and has implied that it’s disproportionally benefiting Trump donors.
Said McCormick: “The Congress enacted this massive appropriation without safeguards or oversight to ensure that taxpayers would be protected, and now the money is gone and only predators seem satisfied while 22 million Americans are filing for unemployment. In addition to the .2 trillion included in the bill is another trillion that the Federal Reserve will distribute as part of Trump’s slush fund.””