Waste, fragmentation, and duplication is a major problem for the federal government. So much so that the efforts to fight them have themselves become duplicative and fragmented.
Over the last 15 years, the federal government has paid out $1.4 trillion in improper payments – defined as “any payment that should not have been made or that was made in an incorrect amount.” The government doles out more in improper payments each year than the annual budgets of the Department of State, Commerce, NASA, EPA, and Energy…combined!
Congress has been trying to fight the improper payment scourge for nearly two decades now, originally passing the Improper Payments Information Act of 2002. Since then, Congress has also passed the Recovery Audit Act of 2002, the Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act of 2010, the Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Improvement Act of 2012, and the Fraud Reduction and Data Analytics Act of 2015.
That’s a lot of laws.
The efforts have all been worthy, but the numerous improper payment laws scattered across the U.S. Code have created a problem. These laws sometimes come into conflict with one another and do not reference each other well. They also leave important implementation issues up for interpretation by individual agencies. The Jackson Pollocking of our improper payment laws make it difficult for agencies to identify and fight improper payments.
And it shows.
A 2017 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that 15 of 24 agencies are out of compliance with improper payment reporting laws. These 15 agencies make up 96% of the government’s $141 billion in annual improper payments. The report found that some Inspectors General (IGs) reported noncompliance based on one finding, while a similar finding in another agency was issued as compliant by their IG.
The piecemeal approach to combating improper payments is similar to a rundown IT system that has been repeatedly patched. At some point it’s just time to replace the entire system. And that’s exactly what a group of Senators want to do.
Senator Braun (R-IN) is supporting a bipartisan effort led by Senator Carper (D-DE) to introduce the Payment Integrity Information Act (S. 375). The bill, which is also sponsored by Sens. Johnson (R-WI) and Peters (D-MI), would bring all of the existing improper payment laws into one place in the U.S. Code while updating them to ensure that they are uniform and consistent.
The bill would also improve how agencies identify high risks for improper payments and how agencies develop plans to prevent improper payments before they happen. Specifically, the bill would increase access to the Death Master File – helping to fight payments to dead people that we have reported on previously.
The bill would also establish a working group to help facilitate improper payment reduction between federal and non-federal partners, such as state governments. Many federal payments are administered by state governments, so their partnership in enhancing eligibility standards and fraud prevention is critical to preventing improper payments.
It may not make front page news, but getting the fight against improper payments right could yield massive savings for taxpayers. As we hurtle towards an era of unsustainable trillion dollar deficits, we’re glad these senators are taking on the challenge.