Innovations are always being made in Washington. One popped up the other day when it was revealed that, for the first time beginning next fall, the Internal Revenue Service will begin cross-checking the name and Social Security number of every person who applies for welfare, food stamps or Medicare in an effort to find cheats and abusers.
Under this broadest-ever authorization by Congress to use IRS information, the new eligibility checks are designed to cut the cost of welfare programs by targeting welfare recipients who fail to report interest or dividend income.
IRS information will be used in conjunction with safeguards that many states have already instituted as part of their systems to detect unreported income and assets among welfare recipients.
And the Office of Management and Budget isn't finished: it is drafting new legislation that will add veterans benefit information, alien status and federal employe pension and employment information to the computerized data into which welfare offices can tap. "If we are in a $200 billion deficit situation -- and we are -- " said George Goldberger, president-elect of Citizens Against Government Waste, "we have to look at every penny."
While conceding the need to be concerned about fraud and waste among individual citizens, many critics complain that setting the precedent of using these highly sensitive government records in this way is dangerous. "If we make the IRS into an information lending library for government agencies," said former IRS commissioner Donald Alexander, "we are likely to undermine our tax system of voluntary compliance."
I also have to question the basic underlying assumption that this dangerous invasion of privacy implies: that welfare applicants and clients are thieves and are to be distrusted more than other segments of the population. No welfare client has ever billed the government space program $315 for each wire fastener that should have cost three cents.
According to Dr. Richard English, dean of the Howard University School of Social Work, most of the studies over the last decade have shown that ineligible persons who receive welfare and food stamps do not exceed 10 percent. "Several years ago," said English, "a government pamphlet reported that less than 1 percent of welfare clients committed fraud and even fewer were prosecuted . . . . There simply is no overwhelming evidence that most people are cheaters."
OMB estimates this new rule will save $375 million in 1987, but critics such as English say that figure is surprisingly high for welfare abuse. "That's just not so," English said.
But the real danger may be to tens of millions of Americans who don't even receive welfare. Just as the government is examining the economic lives of individual welfare recipients, it could just as easily begin to scrutinize the economic affairs of other Americans. IRS information already is being used to check on fathers who fail to make support payments and former students who have defaulted on college loans. According to Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine): "I think the average citizen would be amazed to know how widely records are exchanged without their knowledge."
In the face of this frightening legislation, the question must be asked: Who's next? Will a similar approach be used one day to monitor and control other groups in our society that are being subsidized by government -- farmers, persons receiving workers compensation, medical disabilities, veterans compensations, perhaps even organizations that receive government subsidies?
Using a powerful agency such as the IRS to monitor the finances of the poor may smack of "Big Brotherism" to some people. But what is most disturbing about some of the latest innovations buzzing around Washington -- from the use of IRS data to the proposed drug testing of all government employes and the proposed use of lie detectors -- is that a pattern is being established. And in the name of pragmatism, Big Brother is, indeed, rearing his ugly head.