When the Washington Post published a story in 2007 about how dead farmers had received farm subsidies to the tune of over $1bn, most people were horrified (even “farm subsidy moderate” Rand Paul thought they should go!). Although the article made clear that “most estates are allowed to collect farm payments for up to two years after an owner’s death,” and that the payments weren’t necessarily fraudulent, outrage ensued.
But a follow‐up investigation by the USDA has found that all but about $1 million of the payments were completely above board. From the Associated Press:
A 2007 report that the federal government had paid $1.1 billion in subsidies to dead farmers sparked an outcry and has been frequently cited by critics who considered the payments a blatant example of wasteful spending. But a follow‐up that found no fraud and determined nearly all the subsidies paid on behalf of dead farmers in recent years were proper has received little attention.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, just a little over $1 million out of the billions of dollars paid in subsidies in 2009 went to estates or business entities that weren’t entitled to them.
“Very little money is going to individuals who have not earned that money. Very little is being paid in error because a farmer has passed away,” FSA Administrator Jonathan Coppess told The Associated Press. [emphasis mine]
Don’t you just love how Mr Coppess uses the word “earned” there?
That’s the real scandal of farm subsidies, readers. Not that they are fraudulent (although that is of course an outrage), but that they are, for the most part, perfectly legal.
New York’s budget problem is actually a Medicaid problem. In Sunday’s New York Post, I offer advice to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) on how to fix a budget gap that will grow to $17 billion during his term:
Gov. Cuomo can’t fix Medicaid by himself. He needs the help of Congress.
There is a solution…
Block grants are how President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress reformed welfare back in 1996, to spectacular success. Welfare reform forced New York to be smarter about welfare spending, just as a block grant would force New York to rededicate Medicaid to its original mission — providing necessary medical care to the truly needy.
There’s one place Gov. Cuomo can start on his own: Close the loopholes that allow well‐to‐do New Yorkers to feign poverty on paper so that Medicaid underwrites their long‐term care. Medicaid exists for the poor, not to help well‐off baby boomers protect their inheritance.
Steve Moses of the non‐partisan Center for Long‐Term Care Reform recommends that Cuomo take steps to ensure that New Yorkers with means pay for their own long‐term care. These include reducing New York’s home‐equity exemption from $750,000 to $500,000 (and seeking a federal waiver to reduce it to $0), expanding the use of liens and estate recovery and ending the abusive practice of “spousal refusal.”
Reducing Medicaid abuse won’t be easy. But Cuomo doesn’t have much choice.
In fact, what he has is an opportunity to become the leading national spokesperson for block grants, the quickest and easiest course to relief for states toiling under the unsustainable yoke of Medicaid spending.
Who said: “A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”?
As political junkies know, that was Ronald Reagan in 1964. The Internet attributes other similar quips to Reagan.
Reagan apparently borrowed the idea from Senator James F. Byrnes, who stated on the floor of the Senate in 1933: “The nearest earthly approach to immortality is a bureau of the federal government.”
My source is “Reorganization of Federal Administrative Agencies,” Congressional Quarterly, September 17, 1933. The article is a reminder that concerns about government waste, duplication, overlap, and inefficiency certainly did not start with Reagan. Government failure has been around a long time.
The CQ article notes that the 1932 Democratic platform called for “an immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus, and eliminating extravagance, to accomplish a saving of not less than 25 percent in the cost of the federal government.”
Alas, that leaner‐government policy was not exactly the approach followed by FDR.
The Office of Senator Tom Coburn (R‑OK) has released an appropriately timed report on federal subsidies that have gone to the deceased. From the introduction:
In the past decade, Washington sent over $1 billion of your tax dollars to dead people. Washington paid for dead people’s prescriptions and wheelchairs, subsidized their farms, helped pay their rent, and even chipped in for their heating and air conditioning bills.
In some cases, these payments quietly gather in a dormant bank account. In many others, however, they land in the pockets of still‐living people, who are defrauding the system by collecting benefits meant for a now‐deceased relative.
Since 2000, the known cost of these payments to over 250,000 deceased individuals has topped $1 billion, according to a review of government audits and reports by the Government Accountability Office, inspectors general, and Congress itself. This is likely only a small picture of a much larger problem.
As a Cato essay on fraud and abuse in federal programs discusses, these problems are endemic because the federal government is a “vast money transfer machine.” While federal subsidy programs should be cut because they harm the economy and are unfair to taxpayers, Coburn’s findings of pure waste represent one more reason to pursue terminations of federal programs.
Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur, who authored an amicus brief in the case of Skilling v. U.S., writes on his home blog:
Today, the Supreme Court decided the case of Jeffrey Skilling, the CEO of Enron, who had been convicted of the crime of “honest services fraud.” The statute, however, is so vague, that nobody knows what the term “honest services fraud” actually means. Pacific Legal Foundation (joined by our friends at the Cato Institute) filed a brief in the case arguing that statutes that are so vague violate the constitutional guarantee of due process of law — and that the constitutional protection against vague laws should apply in the business realm the same as anywhere else. Vague laws are dangerous because you cannot know what they prohibit and cannot therefore avoid breaking the law. It is unfair and unconstitutional to hold vague statutes over their head in such a way.
Unfortunately, the Court has in the past been reluctant to apply it outside the regular criminal context, on the theory that businesses are wealthier and can afford expert legal advice. But in a case like this, even the experts have no idea what the statute actually means. The federal circuit courts are in disarray as to what it means. And nobody should be convicted under a statute that is so broadly and vaguely worded, that even the prosecuting lawyer can’t tell you what that law actually means.
As they say, read the whole thing.
I’m usually in enthusiastic accord with our friends over at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, but it seems to me they’ve made a mistake by petitioning the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on GM’s ridiculous “we repaid our federal loan” ad. Some zealous enforcers would love for the FTC to do more to regulate speech by American business on matters of public concern, and it seems to me the last thing we should do is encourage such a trend.
For those who came in late, General Motors and its CEO Ed Whitmire were widely and rightly assailed here and elsewhere for asserting (in a column whose message was repeated in much‐played TV ads) that the company had repaid its bailout loan “in full, with interest, years ahead of schedule.” Actually, as the inspector general of the government’s TARP program readily acknowledged, the firm had merely used one pot of federal money to repay another. Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley helped expose the dodge, and publications ranging from FoxNews.com to the New York Times joined in with scathing coverage.
Yesterday CEI announced that it had filed a formal complaint [PDF] with the FTC urging the commission to investigate the automaker’s ad campaign as misleading. It alleges that the ad campaign “could unfairly dupe consumers into a false, renewed confidence in the company” and that “consumer purchasing decisions can easily be affected by such considerations.” Nick Gillespie at Reason, CEI general counsel Hans Bader, and Todd Zywicki at Volokh have more.
There’s a long history of businesses’ responding to public criticism of their operations or products — and getting in further legal or regulatory trouble because of that very response. In one early case, the FTC went after egg producers for asserting, in the midst of a cholesterol scare that in hindsight appears overblown, that their ovoid wares were not in fact a menace to cardiac health. Sen. Charles Schumer (D‑N.Y.) and the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence have asked the FTC to prohibit ads that imply that keeping a loaded weapon on hand will make a family safer. In Nike v. Kasky, a famous case that reached the Supreme Court [Thomas Goldstein, Cato Supreme Court Review 2003, PDF], shoemaker Nike was sued under a California law over the public defense it had put forward of its labor practices in overseas factories. Environmentalists have sought to suppress ads claiming that nuclear power is nonpolluting, and so forth.
Free‐market advocates have generally argued that whatever the merits of laws or regulations banning misleading advertising in garden‐variety commercial contexts, there are special dangers to the First Amendment and to robust debate generally in letting agencies and courts second‐guess the content of “issue ads” and speech on topics of public controversy. To begin with, it encourages advocates to turn to the law to silence disagreeable speech rather than muster their best arguments to rebut it. In one grotesque example, MoveOn.org and Common Cause actually petitioned the FTC to institute a complaint against Fox News over its use of the slogan “Fair and Balanced”, since (they said) the network was neither.
Despite its current dependence on government, GM is in every relevant legal sense a private company, so any precedents forged against it will wind up applying to every other private enterprise that might wish to advertise on matters of public controversy. Which makes it a concern that CEI’s complaint cites with seeming enthusiasm broad FTC interpretations of authority — for example, its authority to suppress speech that might not be in itself false but could leave a potentially misleading impression.
If there is a continuum extending from more or less purely commercial speech (“Our tires last 40,000 miles”) to more or less purely political speech (“Our business is badly overtaxed”), GM’s ad campaign surely falls way over toward the “political” side. CEI’s response to this is to argue that the campaign might influence consumers’ purely economic calculations (as opposed to the political reasons they have to feel angry at GM) by making them more likely to see the company as solvent and thus as capable of making good its warranty promises. The words “strained” and “makeweight” come to mind to describe this argument. Does CEI really want to establish the future principle that a company’s over‐sunny talk about its financial prospects will henceforth get it in trouble with two federal agencies, the FTC and SEC, rather than the SEC alone?
It all seems a rather high price to pay in principle for keeping the GM-TARP story in the papers for another day or two.
As the nation contemplates the new health care entitlements that Congress and President Obama just created, it is worth noting an article in today’s Washington Post, which reports on the performance of past efforts to eliminate fraud in another health care entitlement:
More than a decade ago, Congress set out to squeeze the fraud out of Medicare billing at nursing homes, requiring more precise justifications for costs. It created new “ultra‐high” billing categories intended to be used for only 5 percent of the patients needing highly specialized care and rehabilitation.
But within a few years, nursing homes flooded the ultra‐high categories with patients, contributing to $542 million a year in potential overpayments, federal analysts found.
Since then, the numbers in the ultra‐high categories have quadrupled, and the amount of waste and abuse could reach billions of dollars a year…
The article ends with the ominous implication that eliminating fraud in entitlement programs like Medicare will ultimately require government agencies to decide whether certain services are medically necessary.
Death panels, anyone?