Friday, September 30, 2005

Two Democratic senators yesterday introduced legislation to prevent abuse of government credit cards in the wake of Katrina, saying government workers have abused them in the past on items such as gambling and prostitutes.

The bill — by Sens. Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota and Ron Wyden of Oregon — would erase language included in the last Katrina spending bill that raised the government credit card limit to $250,000 for Katrina-related purchases. Their bill would revert to the previous government credit card limits of $2,500 for a single, non-emergency purchase, $15,000 for emergency domestic purchases and $25,000 for emergency purchases overseas.

“Given our experience with government credit cards in the past, raising the limit for these purchases will only open us up to rampant waste, fraud and abuse,” Mr. Dorgan said.

He cited three inspector general reports from the past that found abuses of government credit cards, including the purchase of jewelry, mounting a deer head, and Navy personnel who in 2002 used their credit cards on prostitutes, gambling and sports events.

Republicans also are concerned about the higher Katrina-related credit card limit. Last month, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa included in legislation providing health care to victims of Katrina, a provision that would lower the $250,000 limit to $50,000, unless a supervisor signs off on a higher amount.

The Office of Management and Budget issued guidelines to federal agencies on Sept. 13 aimed at stemming abuse by requiring agency heads to identify who is eligible for the $250,000 limit and what constitutes a Katrina-related purchase. But Mr. Grassley said the high limit should be lowered nonetheless.

Mr. Dorgan and Mr. Wyden made clear that government credit card abuse isn’t the norm among federal workers, but said the higher limit just invites abuse. More than 300,000 federal workers have government credit cards and the senators didn’t know how many of them have access to the $250,000 limit to deal with the Gulf Coast disaster.

“The two of us feel very strongly that there are a lot of dedicated people down there who are working very hard and nobody is suggesting otherwise,” Mr. Wyden said. “But what possible argument would there be for not having something along the lines of some guardrails to try to make sure that people don’t abuse these credit cards?”

“I don’t know who put that in the emergency supplemental. … We aim to repeal it on behalf of the American taxpayer,” Mr. Dorgan said.

Mr. Dorgan also said Congress was assured that the new government guidelines would prevent abuse of the higher credit card limit — but the person who made those assurances, Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator David H. Safavian, was arrested by the FBI just a few days later.

“Yeah, and the moon is made of green cheese,” Mr. Dorgan said of Mr. Safavian’s promises.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, is trying to save federal dollars by tackling the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, set to take effect in January. Mr. Flake introduced a bill yesterday that would apply the new benefit only to poor seniors who need it most, instead of all seniors. A spokesman said that the Congressional Budget Office was calculating how much money that would save.

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