It’s a dubious distinction, but government productivity set a record in one category last year: improper payments. Federal printers wrote $125 billion — that’s billion with a “b” — in checks to Americans who didn’t deserve them. This is the solid argument for shrinking the size of the bureaucratic Leviathan. President Obama has redistributed the mountains of waste and the oceans of red ink, rather than reduce them. It’s business as usual in Washington, where frittering away other people’s money is good sport.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative organ of Congress, reported this week that waste and fraud surpassed last year’s waste and fraud by $19 billion, an increase of 18 percent. That quickening pace of waste is one economic category not subject to the limits of slow growth in the Age of Obama. With the U.S. population now exceeding 320 million, the $125 billion in those unwarranted checks adds up to nearly $400 for every man, woman and child in America.
The GAO pointed the finger of responsibility at 124 programs administered by 22 government agencies, and reserved a special measure of blame for three: the Department of Health and Human Services’ Medicare and Medicaid programs, which provide health care for the elderly and the poor, and the Treasury Department’s Earned Income Tax Credit program, which provides federal assistance to low- and moderate-income working Americans with children. This trio of benefits programs put $80.9 billion in improper payouts into undeserving pockets last year.
Sen. Ron Johnson, the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, noticed that Social Security Administration does not give the Treasury Department access to its Master Death File to screen ineligible benefit recipients. Doing so would prevent hundreds of thousands of checks being mailed to dearly departed Americans and cashed by their families, using the identity of the dead. There are currently about 6.5 million Americans born before June 1901 who are obviously no longer among the living, but whose deaths were never recorded with Social Security.
Mr. Johnson took particular aim at this special abuse prominent in the annals of wanton waste: “When it comes to improper payments, the root causes vary from program to program and can be incredibly complex,” he said. “There is one root cause that is easily identified, but for reasons that defy logic has been incredibly difficult to solve. The federal government has doled out billions of dollars over the last few decades to dead people.” It’s right and proper to accord proper respect to the dead, but even if they’re still voting in Chicago the government shouldn’t send them a monthly check.
The streamlining of the federal bureaucracy is almost always welcome. But putting the writing of government checks to recipients on autopilot without proper oversight costs a lot of money. A computer is dumb and blameless, but sometimes the human fingers at the keyboard are corrupt. When federal money is distributed at the speed of the electron, truckloads of cash can disappear in the blink of an eye — without the need of a truck. As Benjamin Franklin might say, “A hundred billion saved is a hundred billion earned.” Or as the late Sen. Everett Dirksen did say, “A billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”