Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified before Congress that federal agencies made more than $100 billion in improper payments last year. To put that number in perspective, $100 billion is more than the combined total budgets of the Coast Guard, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, Border Patrol, Secret Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency — a lot more.
The GAO report is the latest example of why Washington must get serious about eliminating waste, fraud and abuse, and enacting sweeping reforms and spending cuts before any more damage is inflicted on American taxpayers.
Improper payments result when people collect money from government programs for which they are ineligible. For example, paying unemployment insurance to people who are secretly working is an improper payment, and needlessly adds to the already out-of-control deficit.
The GAO thinks it's likely the amount of improper payments is even higher than the $105.8 billion reported. In its own words, "the federal government's inability to determine the full extent to which improper payments occur" represents a serious limitation on their estimates. Some programs, such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families welfare program, do not bother reporting estimates of improper payments at all.
The most errors came from Medicare, which represented almost half of all overpayments. Just two entitlement programs — Medicare and Medicaid — accounted for a whopping $64 billion in total improper payments. Currently, government-run health care programs gobble up one out of every five dollars the government spends, which obviously constricts the government's ability to meet other responsibilities.
Of course, the fact that one of the biggest sectors of government spending is also one of the biggest sources of waste, fraud and abuse is no coincidence — it is merely a sign of the inefficiency of bloated bureaucracy. Unfortunately, the left seems determined to pile on to these programs, seeking to expand a Medicaid program riddled with problems, and refusing to reform Medicare, which is by far the single biggest driver of the nation's $17 trillion national debt.
At this point, most people's eyes glaze over these large numbers. Given how out-of-control spending in Washington has become and the regularity of unfathomably large numbers, it's easy to see how we've become desensitized. These are not numbers to write off as a drop in the bucket. During the first five years of President Obama's administration, the federal government has made a jaw-dropping $500 billion in improper payments — money that could have been returned to the American people and invested in the private-sector economy to create desperately needed jobs.
Last year, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California remarked that "the cupboard is bare there's no more cuts to make." Obviously, she was way off the mark. The federal government took in a record $2.7 trillion in 2013. However, if this is the return on investment taxpayers are getting, then Congress should not ask the American people for an additional dime on top of the trillions we already pay.
Strangely, Mr. Obama's White House is trying to spin this story as a good thing, pointing out that overpayments have decreased since 2010. However, the White House is once again playing politics, putting lipstick on a pig — 2010 was the highest year ever of improper payments, topping $120 billion. Decreasing overpayments from this peak should not be applauded as some magnificent example of fiscal responsibility. The fact remains that improper payments have increased dramatically since the president took office, and they continue to be unacceptably high.
These improper payments are being handed out on the backs of hardworking American taxpayers who are struggling to make ends meet while Washington bureaucrats waste their hard-earned dollars so irresponsibly. There's simply no sugarcoating that.
Akash Chougule is a policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity.