When waste, fraud, and abuse in government is exposed, the first response is often that we need more oversight. For instance, when it came to light that millions in farm subsidies were paid to dead farmers, many in Washington, including the Government Accountability Office, blamed the problem on poor oversight.
But too often, the problem with these waste-ridden programs isn't that they lack a watchful steward; it's that they shouldn't exist in the first place. Lawmakers in Congress have been captured by private interests and will continue to support programs even in the face of clear evidence that they shouldn't. The latest Republican vote on the farm bill is a good example.
The GAO recently found that nearly $37 million was disbursed to deceased recipients, and that the largest portion came from the USDA's Risk Management Agency that issued $22 million in subsidies for people who have been deceased for one to two years.
None of this was fixed, yet the portion of the farm bill that included these programs passed with flying colors. Maybe more importantly, according to GAO report, "Farm Programs: The USDA needs to do more to prevent improper payments to deceased individuals," the solution to this fiasco is more and better oversight.
Regrettably, this problem is neither new nor limited to farm subsidies. It also is not the result of inadequate information or oversight. Countless reports by the GAO, government watchdog groups, inspectors' general, and even members of Congress every year identify myriad instances of overpayment, duplicity, and other waste.
Congress also holds a fair number of hearings to "root out" waste, fraud, and abuse. I have testified at several of them myself, as have many of my colleagues and numerous others who have made the case that many government agencies are extremely poor stewards of taxpayers' money.
But nothing much ever comes out of such oversight. As U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro has noted, "just 12 percent of more than 300 recommendations issued by GAO since 2011 to eliminate, combine or modify duplicative programs have been fully carried out."
One reason that oversight and reform are seldom truly improved is that — even in the face of reform-minded reports, data-driven reviews, and the monitoring of goals and priorities — appropriators are not bound to make policy changes.
In essence, the actions of legislators are less influenced by GAO reports or testimonies (oversight) than the rewards of entertaining competing special-interest groups and lobbyists.
There is a long track record of Congress appropriating funds for programs repeatedly shown to be in dire need of reform, or in many cases, elimination (think about the Ex-Im Bank, the SBA, the 1705 loan program, or any corporate subsidies.) This occurs whether the program benefits one firm at the expense of the others, whether it benefits an industry at the expense of its consumers, or whether there are 54 other programs doing the exact same thing.
The best way to avoid wasting taxpayers' money isn't to increase or improve oversight; it is to shrink the size of government and cut or eliminate programs. Many programs simply shouldn't exist at the federal level, but should fall under the purview of state and local governments or the private sector.
While there will still be waste, fraud and abuse in a smaller government (especially if the decision-making process and the incentives for politicians to be captured by special interests remain the same), it is easier to effectively oversee fewer programs.
Until then, our money will continue to go to special interests — dead or alive.