As the summer travel season winds down, here are some fun facts for you:
- It’s estimated that 100 million Americans took a summer vacation in 2019
- Top destinations in 2019 were predicted to be The Turkish Riviera, Egypt, The Peloponnese, Matera, Perth, The Scottish Highlands, St Barths, Arles, Valle de Guadalupe and New Orleans
- Americans are spending more than $100 billion on summer vacations this year
- Millennials will spend an average of $1300 per summer trip (Boomer spend $1865 on average)
- The Department of Defense Travel Pay System has accrued $1 billion in improper payments in the last 3 years.
Wait, what was that last one?!
A recent report found that between 2016 and 2018, the Department of Defense accrued nearly $1 billion in improper payment just in its travel pay system.
The DoD’s travel pay program makes payments to cover the travel expenditures for service members and civilian employees. These travel payments total to about $6.1 billion annually – $2.3 billion of these payments are for “training attendance,” $1 billion are for “special missions,” $1 billion are for site visits, $544 million are for informational meetings, and a combined $400 million are speeches, presentations or conference attendance.
About half of the travel payments are used for active service members while 29 percent are for civilian employee travel and 19 percent are for reserve and national guard members.
These payments are typically disbursed through authorizations and vouchers – a two step process that provides travelers with information about the travel expenses authorized to be paid and then the travelers submit vouchers to be reimbursed for the travel expenses.
Unfortunately for the taxpayers, this process has resulted in unacceptably large amount of costly errors. These errors include duplicating voucher payments (providing two payments for the same expense), overpaying reimbursements (such as a $200 flight being reimbursed for $300), logging mileage incorrectly, and travelers claiming expenses that were automatically generated during the booking process.
Over the last three years, the DoD travel payment system has made $986 million in improper payments – with over a third of that resulting in direct monetary costs to the taxpayer.
These issues aren’t entirely new either.
In 2016, the DoD Inspector General issued a report that found the DoD was failing to comply with improper payment laws in their Defense Travel Program – as improper payment rates rose from 5 percent in 2012 to 7 percent in 2014. Following that 2016 report, the DoD acknowledged the problems and put in place a remediation plan to get them under control.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report last week that found the remediation plan has made some improvements, but the DOD’s travel payment program is still not compliant with improper payment laws.
While these improper payment problems have persisted, the DoD travel budget has only grown larger. Between 2016 and 2018, the travel program budget has increased by $1 billion (16 percent). When asked about why the travel budget has increased so dramatically recently, DoD officials were unable to explain the growth and speculated that it was likely due to overall DoD budget increases. Since 2017, Congress has approved over $300 billion in defense spending increases.
Notably, these defense spending increases were pushed for under the auspices that the Department of Defense was sapped for resources and desperately needed a budget boost. Yet, report after report keeps finding that the DoD cannot properly account for these payments.
The DoD budget mantra might as well be “we don’t know how the tax dollars are being used, we just know we need more of them.”
Improper payments are not a problem unique to the DoD. In fact, the federal government makes a mind-blowing $150 billion in estimated improper payments every year. That is more than the combined budgets of the Department of State, Commerce, NASA, EPA, and Energy.
While Congress has been waging a battle against these improper payments for years, the piecemeal impact has not been successful. Fortunately, the Payment Integrity Information Act (S. 375), a bipartisan bill that would update and improve how agencies fight improper payments, recently passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the House.
In the meantime, instead of boosting budgets of programs that are riddled with errors, Congress should cap expenditures until agency heads can prove that our tax dollars are being used to further the agency’s mission rather than being squandered o double hotel room payments and incorrect travel miles.