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The reviews are in and there's a big thumbs down on $16 muffins. Shockingly wasteful, extravagant, indulgent, obscene, outrageous — and those are the nicest comments to be found in the blogosphere. A meal hasn't gotten these kind of notices since Roman Emperor Claudius panned his wife's poisoned mushrooms.

News of the pricey breakfast treat has been burning up the Internet since Justice Department auditors revealed the excessive spending in a report released Tuesday. The pastries were served at a conference the agency hosted at the Capital Hilton in Washington.

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But the muffins were just the tip of the buffet. The inspector general's report outlined a number of costly catering bills racked up by the agency in various meetings dating back to the Bush administration. There's the $8 cup of coffee, the $32 Cracker Jack and other snacks, the $7 Beef Wellington appetizers, and a $76-a-head luncheon in San Francisco.

Republicans are angry. So are Democrats. In fact, good luck finding a soul on Capitol Hill who supports Justice Department party planning in 2008 and 2009. When millions of Americans are out of work and the economy is in the tank, nobody wants to hear about bureaucrats spending large amounts of taxpayer dollars on pricey muffins, cookies and brownies.

Shame on anybody who signed the check or approved the appropriation for much of what was uncovered by the agency's watchdog. Food was not the only extravagance. It appears the Justice Department spent too much on planning its conferences, too.

Before we all wallow too long in our collective bile over these indulgences, however, let's also keep some perspective. The agency may have wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars. If all the meetings conducted by the Department of Justice during that period were useless — and even critics will concede that's highly unlikely — it may even have spent $121 million too much.

Add up all the waste in government and there might even be billions. Some conservative think-tanks have suggested hundreds of billions, but they inevitably expand their definition of waste to include a lot of public health, childhood development, disability and other social service and regulatory programs that millions of Americans strongly support.

Still, when times are tough, any narrative that blames the nation's economic woes on government excess is compelling stuff. So are nightmarish stories like the failure of Solyndra, the California-based solar panel manufacturer that will likely cost the taxpayers more than a half-billion dollars in loan guarantees.

In retrospect, supporting a company as risky as Solyndra was clearly a bad decision, too. If political favoritism was involved, it's even worse. But that doesn't mean the federal government shouldn't be nurturing a domestic green energy economy or that killing such programs would do much to solve the nation's deficit problem.

Tax cuts that weren't factored into the federal budget, waging wars without paying for them and entitlement programs that have grown much faster than the revenue required to support them, those are the real engines of the nation's debt, not a plate of $16 muffins or loan guarantees that were a small part of a one-time stimulus package.

Only a combination of spending reductions, tax increases and reforms to entitlement programs can provide a permanent fix to the deficit in the long-term, a point made clearly by President Barack Obama's deficit commission. That's tough medicine, and it doesn't taste any better when Justice Department catering bills are sitting on the table.

In the end, such bureaucratic bungling may be maddening, but it shouldn't be distracting. Let Congress vent its spleen and deal with whoever is responsible for the Justice Department's very poor judgment. Then it should get back to the business of creating jobs and stimulating the weak economy in the short-run and adopting sensible economic policy that reduces the deficit in the long-term. After all, Washington's political dysfunction is on the verge of proving itself a whole lot more costly to the American people than all the muffins that all the Hiltons have ever served.

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