The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Six examples of government waste from this year’s budget-hawk reports

(Carol Porter/Washington Post)

Congress faces a deadline Wednesday for approving a unified 2016 budget, and lawmakers from both parties are looking for ways to trim the $18 trillion federal debt to varying degrees.

At least two reports this year have highlighted perceived waste that the government could address as it tries to reduce spending.

Citizens Against Government Waste released its annual “Prime Cuts” report this month, recommending programs that the government could eliminate for some $648 billion in savings next year.

The group has conservative roots, but its recommendations affect a wide variety of programs, from farm aid and defense spending to AmeriCorps and community-development grants.

Also this month, Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) released the first edition of “Waste Watch,” following in the footsteps of former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who published an annual “Waste Book” for years before retiring in January.

[Nonprofit contractor sent government $1.1 million bill for parties and retreats]

Below are six examples of alleged waste from this year’s budget-hawk analyses:

Dairy, peanut, and sugar subsidies

The “Prime Cuts” report calls for an end to subsidies that assist dairy, peanut and sugar farmers and help control prices for those products. It says the government could save $2.85 billion combined in one year by eliminating the programs.

Citizens Against Government Waste compared sugar subsidies to an “outdated, Soviet-style command-and-control program,” saying most of the assistance goes to the “wealthiest 1 percent of farmers.”

The Rural Utilities Service

The largest savings from the “Prime Cuts” report would come from terminating the Rural Utilities Service, which provides loans and grants for utilities such as telephone and internet service in underserved parts of the country. The estimated savings would be $9.6 billion during the first year.

Citizens Against Government Waste said many of the projects are wasteful, citing one that cost nearly $5,500 per resident to provide broadband access to a town of 122 residents in rural Arkansas.

Not enough Medicare audits

Not all the “Prime Cuts” recommendations come in the form of cuts. Some call for ramping up efforts to prevent fraud and improper payments.

The report recommends reinstating the Recovery Audit Contractor program, which helped recover nearly $10 billion in improper Medicare payments over eight years. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services halted the initiative last year amid a backlog of more than 350,000 appeals.

Citizens Against Government Waste estimated that the government could save $24 billion over five years by restarting the program.

Buildings that turn to mud

“Waste Watch” notes that the U.S. government paid an Afghan construction firm nearly $500,000 in 2012 to build an Afghan police training center that began to disintegrate in the rain four months after the project was finished. U.S., authorities found that the bricks were made mostly of sand, with little clay to prevent them from turning to mud when wet.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction recommended recouping the funds, but the process has been delayed while U.S. authorities try to prove that the contractor violated construction standards. Meanwhile, the builder is eligible to receive more U.S. taxpayer dollars, according to Russell’s report.

Lavish parties for USAID contractors

“Waste Watch” also takes issue with a nonprofit contractor billing the U.S. Agency for International Development $1.1 million for staff parties and retreats at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Washington Post first revealed the spending in a report last month.

Several events took place at Pennsylvania’s Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Pennsylvania, one of the most luxurious resorts on the East Coast. Guests there can enjoy amenities such as country carriage rides, guided turkey hunts and safari tours of a private animal collection.

According to the Post report, attendance at some of the events was compulsory, and the perks included free iPods, Nikon Coolpix cameras and extreme-driving classes.

USAID suspended the contractor from receiving further federal money, and at least three federal agencies are investigating the organization.

Millions over age 112 have Social Security numbers

A recent watchdog review found that at least 6.5 million active Social Security numbers belong to people who are at least 112 years old and likely deceased. Only 35 living individuals worldwide had reached that age as of October 2013.

[Millions over age 112 have Social Security numbers, and it’s not because we’re living longer]

An inspector general’s report last month said the questionable identification numbers put the government at risk of fraud and waste. Auditors proposed that the Social Security Administration take action to correct its death records, but the agency said doesn’t want to divert resources away from efforts to improve payment accuracy with benefits.

Russell called on the Social Security Administration to follow the recommendations, saying federal and state agencies rely on the information to “prevent serious criminal fraud and payments to the deceased.”