Government Waste, Death by a Thousand Cuts

In the last 18 months, spending scandals have struck hosts of federal agencies. (IRS videos, GSA scandal, and others) Each spending scandal is relatively small in relation to the overall waste of taxpayer money, but they collectively amount to crippling loss, a death by a thousand cuts.

Senators Tom Carper (D-DE), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Oversight, and Ranking Member Tom Coburn (R-OK) have jointly and separately introduced dozens of amendments and bills, trying to change how Washington oversees tax expenditures. In the last Congress, they introduced two bills designed to eliminate tens of billions of dollars in federal inefficiencies.

However, the Senate did not even consider their bills, despite at least $108 billion being lost to improper payments in 2012, and hundreds of billions more lost to duplicated programs. So what can be done? Unfortunately, after speaking with Senator Carper and a spokesperson in Senator Coburn’s office, their efforts are likely to continue to be for naught.

According to Senator Carper, $108 billion in improper payments is a good thing, for two reasons: first, it’s down from 2011 and 2012, and second, improper payments weren’t even reported until President Bush signed a law in 2002 that forced agencies to keep track of their spending. The Senator explained that a 2010 law made things stricter, forcing agencies to not only report improper payments, but also to recover it and put greater effort towards prevention.

One of the biggest offending agencies is the Defense Department, which is such a mess that it is not auditable at all. Senator Carper told Tea Party Patriots that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “promised me, just as [former Defense Secretary] Leon [Panetta] did, that they’d make this a priority.”

Typically, when it comes to keeping track of money, a combination of punishments for failure and rewards for success is used in the private sector. This is not the case in Congress. Senator Carper said the legislation he and Senator Coburn got passed in 2010 mostly incentivized good behavior through promotion and other career opportunities.

Formal punishments seem to be rare, however. The only real “punishments” the Senator cited are when he and Senator Coburn “get real hard on agencies that don’t comply.” He also pointed out that “and a lot of public exposure is not very pleasant, not very enjoyable. But agencies like Homeland Security, that are actually trying hard, we give them positive reinforcement. We’re going to tighten up the improper payments again, including a Do Not Pay List for people who should not be paid because they owe money. The other thing we’re trying to move away from is Pay & Chase. We’re always looking at improvement.”

In other words, Senator Coburn and Senator Carper embarrass offending agency officials in public hearings. Actual punishments such as loss of pay, loss of job, jail time, etc. do not seem to be on the table.

The reason for this lack of rewards and punishments is Congress’ unwillingness to implement proper oversight up-front. Senator Carper defended this by saying it is Congress’ job to merely pass legislation. “The job of the Executive Branch’s job is to execute. Then we do oversight, along with the GAO, and once we get the GAO’s study, we hold a hearing.” If the agency is deficient, “it’s not very pleasant for them.”

This solution does not inspire confidence in government accountability, and ignores how Congress can institute proper oversight in legislation in order to force the Executive Branch to act. While efforts are made after the fact to prevent loss of taxpayer funds, even the Carper/Coburn FAST Act – which would prevent fraud and improper payments in Medicare and Medicaid – is being ignored by the Senate, and is being only partially implemented by the Executive Branch

The oversight of spending is so atrocious that a spokesperson in Senator Coburn’s office told Tea Party Patriots “The GAO has identified over $200 billion in duplication and waste from their first three duplication reports – which is required by law from an amendment Dr. Coburn introduced in January of 2010.” The spokesperson also noted the Government Accountability Office is going to work on “identifying even more duplication and overlap in the coming years because of this amendment.”

Yet even this common-sense idea – that having multiple agencies do the same job is bad – has failed in the Senate. For example, he Senate has refused to act on legislation that would require an analysis of any new program to make sure it’s not duplicating an existing program. The spokesperson explained “amendments and bipartisan legislation [would] have CRS…identify if a new bill creates any federal program, office, or initiative that would duplicate or overlap an existing federal entity.”

Clearly, the Senate has no interest in preventing improper payments and duplication of programs – which means at least 10% of the federal budget is lost every year to improper payments and duplication alone –fraud and other wastes add to the 10%. Even one of the few amendments the Senate has passed to improve spending, provisions of the Audit the Pentagon Act, is woefully inadequate to the task. For example, the amendment gives the Department of Defense until 2017 to be auditable (in other words, accountable to you the people) before any internal changes are made.

The spokesperson also noted the Pentagon is already required to have a full audit of itself available, but has failed to follow existing law. Giving the Pentagon several more years to fail is a woefully inadequate solution.

So what can be done? The Senate refuses to act, and the House hasn’t really done anything on this issue, either. Defunding offending programs and agencies could be a powerful solution; for those who are concerned about national defense or Medicare and Medicaid, perhaps the threat of shutdown will inspire Congress and bureaucrats to take real action on oversight and accountability.