Misdirected checks costly to U.S.

September 28, 2011


There isn’t much about dysfunctional government that shocks me anymore, but this story did.

According to a report by the Office of Personnel Management and reported in Ed O’Keefe’s “The Federal Eye” column in the Washington Post, our government has been sending checks to dead people. “In the last five years,” O’Keefe writes, “the Office of Personnel Management has made more than $601 million in payments to dead federal retirees, according to the agency’s inspector general. Total annual payouts range between $100 million and $150 million.”

This isn’t something new. Inspector General Patrick McFarland had urged OPM in 2005 and again in 2008 to more closely monitor such payments. It appears his advice has gone unheeded.

“Improper payments to dead retirees are up 70 percent in the last five years,” cites the OPM report. In one outrageous case, the son of a deceased annuitant kept receiving federal benefits for 37 years after his father’s death. OPM didn’t learn about the improper payments until after the son died. Of course, the agency never recovered any of the money. Could this be why the government has no qualms about spending other people’s money?

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, conducted an investigation and reported last October on his findings. Coburn discovered that “the federal government had paid nearly $1 billion to at least 250,000 dead people since 2000. That same month, a watchdog reported that the Obama administration’s economic stimulus program had made 89,000 payments of $250 each to dead or incarcerated people,” writes O’Keefe.

As congressional Democrats and Republicans play another round of “chicken” over what, if anything, can be cut from the bloated budget and engage in phony theatrics over another possible government shutdown, those members who wish to be more responsible with other people’s money ought to make the issue of wasteful spending central to the upcoming campaign.

After removing the dead and incarcerated from the federal payroll, they can go after an agency that touches all Americans: the U.S. Postal Service. According to Citizens Against Government Waste (www.cagw.org), “The USPS has 600,000 employees and is the second largest employer in America behind Wal-Mart. The USPS Office of Inspector General reported that employees were paid $21.9 million for 875,540 hours of ‘stand-by’ time in FY 2010, and $4.3 million for 170,666 hours in the first half of FY 2011. The USPS also has a 24 percent vacancy rate in its 284 million square feet of interior office space.”

The problem is that once a federal agency or program is started, it is easier to find an honest politician than it is to cut something from the budget. Ronald Reagan noted the only proof of eternal life on Earth is a government program. Being dead does not have to remove one from the “spread the wealth” mentality of the current administration, or any administration. Misspending is clearly bipartisan.

Then there’s Solyndra, the California solar panel company that received half a billion dollars in loan guarantees and then declared bankruptcy. Solyndra officials invoked the 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination last week before a congressional committee.

Also last week, Senate Democrats rejected a continuing spending resolution passed by the House because, among other reasons, it contains cuts in the very solar energy program that funded Solyndra. So just because a company or a person dies does not necessarily disqualify them from receiving additional taxpayer money (borrowed from the Chinese, of course). Eternal life, you see.

It is beyond disgraceful that so many elected officials and unelected bureaucrats continue to waste so much of our money, all the while demanding we be taxed more because they can’t “afford” to cut a dime and some of us allegedly aren’t contributing our “fair share.”

We are past not being able to afford our government and it’s long past time to start cutting them off, much as a parent might stop sending money to a spendthrift college student who wastes it on partying and high-living.

Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services. His email address is tmseditors@tribune.com.


jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

Such a mixture of different things, some good and some not-so-good.

Waste is absurd at the government level, and should be eliminated (or greatly reduced, if we can't eliminate it) - I imagine nobody would defend massive amounts of money paid to dead people.

Then he transitions to the post office, which is apparently actually required to run as a private business, but uses it as an example of problematic government spending.

And, then, he moves to alternative energy funding, and because there was apparently a problematic solar energy firm (I'll wait for the details of the investigation to form my conclusion about it), he proposes that we cut funding for that entire purpose, and hold disaster relief hostage to that.

This is the problem these days for me - I oppose (with everybody else I know) waste like the first example, but support the idea of alternative energy funding. Unless we start cutting government funding to every place that there's every found to be a problematic company, why start there?

If the PO is in fact functioning as a private entity, then it's a bad example of government as well.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 7 months ago

"Waste is absurd at the government level,"

While I agree that the waste Cal pointed out should be greatly reduced, if not eliminated, the fact is that the amount of waste in this particular program as a percentage of total payments made is likely pretty small. Which is probably why Cal never supplied that bit of info.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

One can always play with comparisons, given the outrageously large expenditures of the federal government.

The fact remains that we should eliminate this sort of nonsense - everybody should agree with that, don't you think?

If the stats quoted are accurate, $1 billion in ten years has been wasted on this - that's $100 million/year - sounds like a lot of money to me to waste.

And, I'm sure there's more like it in other departments/programs.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 7 months ago

It is a lot of money, but as I said, likely a small percentage of the overall expenditures.

But using these relatively small problems as a Trojan horse to justify eliminating these programs altogether, Cal's real, unstated goal, isn't the best way to eliminate them.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

All the "buts" and interpretations are why we can't get things done.

If we can't even all agree that we should end obvious waste of large amounts of tax dollars, how can we ever work on the more difficult issues together?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 7 months ago

No program (public or private) will ever be perfect. There will always be some amount of waste. That doesn't mean that efforts shouldn't be made to find and either eliminate or reduce it. But don't be fooled by folks like Cal. They don't want to eliminate waste-- they want to eliminate all government programs in order to finance the redistribution of all wealth to the already wealthy and powerful.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

I'm more interested in substance than personalities.

In my view, we'd all be better off discussing that than much of what takes place in politics today.

Why can't you just say you're in favor of eliminating wasteful government spending without the buts, qualifications, and sidelines?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 7 months ago

This is a discussion about a Cal Thomas piece. He doesn't care about eliminating waste-- he cares about eliminating government-- at least those parts that help average folks.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

Ok - you'd rather discuss personalities than substance.

I think that's a mistake, and part of the problem with American politics today.

It's the reason that Republicans oppose things proposed by Obama, even if they might have previously agreed with them, among other things.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 7 months ago

I'm fine with discussing substance. But you're sadly mistaken if you think the substance you want to discuss is the same substance that lies behind yet another disingenuous piece from Cal Thomas.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago


And conservatives are sure that liberals, and Obama, have a socialist agenda they're hiding.

It's a silly game to play, and I'm not interested in it.

I don't care what Cal's "agenda" is - it's irrelevant to me, and I can analyze the content of his discussions without speculating.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 7 months ago

"I don't care what Cal's "agenda" is - it's irrelevant to me, and I can analyze the content of his discussions without speculating."

So can I. And I've read enough of Cal Thomas to know that I'm not speculating at all. I'm merely including that which he has disingenuously chosen to exclude in this piece (a piece where is also clearly lobbying for the liquidation of the US Postal Service.)

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 7 months ago

Also, how much money and effort should be expended to eliminate "waste and inefficiency?" Keep in mind that in a large program, waste and inefficiency might not account for more than small fraction of the entire budget, but turn that into a dollar amount, it sounds really huge (see Cal's example above.) Would it make sense to spend 5% of the entire budget to eliminate waste of 1/2 of 1%?

Should we greatly increase the layers of bureaucracy for legitimate recipients to ensure that the small percentage of illegitimate ones are reduced? (and that's the most likely way that "waste and inefficiency" would be reduced.)

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

Again, this is why conservatives are convinced that liberals don't even want to eliminate waste in government.

And, if we can't even agree on that, there's little hope for the tougher issues.

This one should be easy - sending $100 million to dead people every year should look like ridiculous waste to everybody, and we should all be able to say we should stop doing that.

Financially, it's obviously not a good idea to spend more on enforcement than you get out of it.

You really think there's not an easier way to stop sending money to dead folks than to greatly increase the bureaucracy for legitimate ones?

Here's a quick thought - with our technology, it should be relatively easy to get obituary/burial/death notice information from around the country, and then cross check recipients against that.

When a dead person shows up on the list, they no longer get their SS benefits, which is as it should be.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 7 months ago

"Again, this is why conservatives are convinced that liberals don't even want to eliminate waste in government."

But what conservatives never want to admit is that most of the time, we'll have to spend some money in order to save some money.

"Here's a quick thought - with our technology, it should be relatively easy to get obituary/burial/death notice information from around the country, and then cross check recipients against that."

It probably is possible, but it'd be anything but easy. It'd take some very careful data mining, and whatever cull list they come up with will have to be rechecked to make sure that there aren't mistakes (two people with the same name, etc.) that stop checks to living folks who are legitimate recipients.

Implementing would easily cost well into the $million, which Congress would need to specifically allocate.

But the Republican mantra these days is eliminating government, not eliminating waste, so don't expect them to allocate significant money for anything that would eliminate waste-- after all, waste is one of the things they can point to for why government needs to be eliminated. If you need proof, read Cal's article again.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

This whole partisan thing is very tiresome and discouraging to me.

We should all be able to sit down and identify a large amount of waste in the federal government's spending.

Then, we should all be able to say let's stop doing that.

Working out the details on how to do that in the best, most cost effective way comes next.

But, it looks to me as though we can't even do the first step - if the waste is in SS, liberals will oppose the suggestion - if it's in the DD, conservatives will oppose it. Etc.

So we're stuck - and if we can't do the easier, more obvious things, it's very unlikely we'll be able to tackle the more difficult ones.

If you want to show the Republicans' flaws in this regard, then I'd suggest that you immediately get on board with eliminating waste in all areas of government spending, and propose to do that. Then, if they object, they get the fallout politically.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

Spending a few million to save $100 million is clearly a good move financially.

So propose it, and let them oppose it.

By the way, it was just my first and quick thought - I'm sure that intelligent computer programmers/designers can figure out more elegant ways to do it, and other similar things, if we gave them the chance.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 7 months ago

Part of the problem is a definition of "waste." As far as I'm concerned, 75% of money spent on "Defense" is wasted. As far as people like Cal are concerned, any money spent on anyone except the obscenely wealthy (and their War Dept.) is wasted.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

That's the more difficult and disputed stuff, which would come later.

Can't we all agree that sending SS benefits to dead people is wasteful?

If not, there's really no hope at all for us.

I submit there should be a pretty long list of stuff that we all could/should agree is simply wasteful, without controversy.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 7 months ago

Of course it's wasteful. But there's probably a reason that it hasn't been addressed, and that reason is almost certainly because the funding that's been authorized to the SSA doesn't allow the creation and implementation of the infrastructure and polices that could substantially reduce it without simultaneously hindering payments to large numbers of legitimate recipients. ("Waste" will never be totally eliminated-- true perfection in any human endeavor is almost always cost prohibitive.)

voevoda 6 years, 7 months ago

The columnist is wrong when he compares government to "a spendthrift college student who wastes [money] on partying and high-living; he didn't give a single example that could properly be understood that way. What would be a reasonable simile? The student gave some of the money his parents intended for his own room and board to charities, and a few of the charities turned out to be scams. The student invested a little of his future tuition money in stocks, not always with proper investigation beforehand, and one of the companies went bankrupt. The student arranged for maintenance for the condo his parents bought for him to live in while in college, and he paid the maintenance company for more hours than they actually worked. When a proper comparison is made, it doesn't look like the "college student" is doing so much that is improper. Could he live more economically? Yes, of course. But there's no evidence of gross profligacy.

voevoda 6 years, 7 months ago

The environmental issue is groundwater, rockchalk1977, not "beetles." That is, the safety of the water supply that makes agriculture possible in much of Kansas, and with it, most of the jobs in this state. Our state. If an impartial report by a neutral party can put that issue to rest, then I will say, go ahead and build the pipeline. But ridiculing people for having environmental concerns is not helpful, rockchalk1977. It makes me wonder what the promoters of the pipeline are hiding.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 7 months ago

The other, more critical environmental impact is the fact that production of oil from these tar sands require huge amounts of natural gas, meaning that the greenhouse gas footprint of this oil is double that of most crude oil. Which means that a Prius using gasoline from made from tar sands oil would produce as much CO2 as a full-sized Hummer or other SUV.

Not to mention that it utterly destroys the land from which it is strip-minded, removing forever critical wildlife habitat, and pollutes massive quantities of surface waters.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 7 months ago

A bad investment is still a bad investment, no matter how many (temporary) jobs it creates.

Richard Payton 6 years, 7 months ago

The groundwater wouldn't be touched by the pipeline. That pipeline goes many miles below the groundwater.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 7 months ago

The company hoping to build this pipeline have already had significant spills on other pipelines.

weeslicket 6 years, 7 months ago

funny how the ljworld byline doesn't list an author (editorialist) hmmmmm....

weeslicket 6 years, 7 months ago

anywhoos: cal thomas's lead states: "There isn’t much about dysfunctional government that shocks me anymore, but this story did."

don't you just love it when an editorialist's lead sentence contradicts the entire premise of the following article? mr. thomas: i hereby award you the george will awardium of editorialist obfuscationist awardiestism awardy. the lord god in heaven knows you've earned it.

  • assuming that cal thomas and george will are the actual writers. can't tell from today's online byline.

camper 6 years, 7 months ago

I saw an interesting movie called "Iraq for Sale". Stunning how much money the Pentagon was overbilled. I could not believe the 8 figure salaries payed to the CEO's of these companies. I think I can remeber President Bush being very ticked off when he heard about it and said that if we were overbilled, they would pay us back. I still have not heard if this ever happened. This was a mixed case of private contractor corruption and Government with seemingly deep pockets. $100 for them to do a load of laundery for a soldier.....this movie will infuriate you, and wake you up to what went on. The profiteering of war is sickening.

Richard Heckler 6 years, 7 months ago

There is waste everywhere even in private industry. Government is not alone. Private industry is not the epitome of efficiency or honesty.

Take look at the private industry war profiteers and all the of waste and fraud committed against Medicare by the white collar private industry.

And this: How much is the sick U.S. health care system costing you?

By Joel A. Harrison

Paying through the Taxman The U.S. health insurance system is typically characterized as a largely private-sector system, so it may come as a surprise that more than 60% of the $2 trillion annual U.S. health care bill is paid through taxes, according to a 2002 analysis published in Health Affairs by Harvard Medical School associate professors Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein.

Tax dollars pay for Medicare and Medicaid, for the Veterans Administration and the Indian Health Service. Tax dollars pay for health coverage for federal, state, and municipal government employees and their families, as well as for many employees of private companies working on government contracts.

Less visible but no less important, the tax deduction for employer-paid health insurance, along with other health care-related tax deductions, also represents a form of government spending on health care. http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2008/0508harrison.html

And this:

Senate Panel Hears of A Raw Deal Consumers Get From Health Insurers

By David S. Hilzenrath Washington Post Staff Writer Thursday, June 25, 2009

Health insurers have forced consumers to pay billions of dollars in medical bills that the insurers themselves should have paid, according to a report released yesterday by the staff of the Senate Commerce Committee.

More on this story: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/24/AR2009062401636.html

Flap Doodle 6 years, 7 months ago

Diverting over $700 million to a company connected to Nancy Pelosi's BIL is also going to be very costly to the USA.

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