Q&A: Spending Oversight
Q: What drives your relentless grip on the federal purse strings?
A: Like many Iowans who grow up in households that don’t spend beyond their means, I understand the need to pinch pennies. Reckless spending goes against the grain of a heritage rooted in Midwestern fiscal discipline. This philosophy has shaped how Iowans conserve natural resources and spare financial resources. It also guides my work for Iowans as a taxpayer watchdog. The Constitution vests Congress with power of the purse, giving authority to representatives of the people to decide how money is raised and spent. Voting for a tax or spending bill is one step in the process in our system of checks and balances. After the president signs a measure into law, I work to ensure the tax dollars are collected and spent as intended. With a nearly $4 trillion federal budget, this requires relentless commitment to effectively monitor federal payments. Unfortunately, the federal treasury is too often viewed as a cash cow for wrongdoers who milk the federal funding stream every chance they get. From national defense to federal health care programs, the federal treasury is a bulls-eye for bad actors. Disregard for hard-earned tax dollars gets my goat no matter which federal agency is targeted or at fault. That’s because each defense, health care, agriculture or transportation dollar that is squandered or not spent as intended rips off taxpayers, deprives a public benefit and undermines the public trust.
Q: Is the Pentagon making strides to fix its bookkeeping flaws?
A: Unfortunately, the Pentagon continues to flunk the most fundamental measure of fiscal stewardship. In fact, it is the only federal agency that has failed to produce a clean audit. And that’s despite the federal law Congress passed in 1990 requiring one from every federal agency, “The Chief Financial Officers Act.” In April, I joined a bipartisan letter to the Secretary of Defense calling upon the Pentagon to comply with the long overdue, mandatory clean audit. In 2010, Congress even gave the Pentagon more breathing room to achieve compliance, setting a new deadline of September 30, 2017. The Defense Department has an obligation to assure the taxpaying public that its investments in our military are being protected against waste, fraud and abuse. As it stands, the public’s confidence has been shaken once again with revelations of fiscal mismanagement by the Pentagon in Afghanistan. The squandering of tens of millions of dollars casts a cloud over the Department of Defense when America depends on it to spend every dollar as effectively and efficiently as possible for our military readiness and national security. Pentagon officials still are unable to document if a natural gas filling station cost American taxpayers $5.1 million or $43 million. My oversight of the matter a year ago revealed Pentagon bookkeepers were more concerned about shifting blame and making excuses rather than the issue at hand: sound fiscal stewardship of tax dollars. Another example of fiscal folly this summer revealed the Pentagon wasted as much as $28 million over the last decade on an ill-suited camouflage pattern for the Afghan army. Auditors discovered the Pentagon approved a more expensive forest print that doesn’t work for 98 percent of the desert terrain in Afghanistan. That’s as bone-headed as cashing one’s paycheck and throwing the money out the window along the interstate corridor between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. These two audits were carried out by SIGAR, the agency Congress installed to audit reconstruction spending in Afghanistan. It confirms the Pentagon requires an even shorter leash when it comes to fiscal stewardship. That’s why I will continue pressing for the Pentagon to come clean with a clean audit once and for all. That goes for the entire federal government. Oversight, enforcement and transparency are vital tools to fight fraud and wasteful spending.
Q: How can tax dollars lost to fraud be recovered?
A: The federal government’s number one tool to fight fraud comes from the whistleblower amendments I secured to the False Claims Act. The Justice Department credits the Grassley “qui tam” amendments for helping to recover more than $53 billion to the U.S. Treasury. These recoveries underscore two very important facts. First, whistleblowers are vital to protecting the taxpaying public from waste, fraud and abuse. Second, wrongdoers will never stop trying to fleece the federal government. In fact, the Justice Department in July announced its largest ever health care fraud enforcement in history. More than 400 individuals are charged with defrauding $1.3 billion from federal coffers, from billing Medicare, Medicaid and TRICARE for prescriptions never purchased, collecting money for false treatments and tests and handing out prescriptions for cash. The scheme reached deeply into America’s opioid crisis, in which doctors, nurses and other health care professionals distributed prescription narcotics and painkillers for payment. A sweeping collaborative investigation by the Justice Department, U.S. Attorneys offices, FBI, IRS, Drug Enforcement Administration and 30 state Medicare Fraud Control Units were involved in the investigation and arrests. This billion-dollar example of fraud not only reflects the cost burden to taxpayers; it also exposes the price of criminal greed on the nation’s opioid crisis and to the millions of beneficiaries of federal health care programs who were victims of diverted resources. As Congress makes decisions on the federal budget, I will continue my strong support and robust oversight of anti-fraud programs, whistleblower protections, inspectors general authority and transparency laws to stay ahead of wrongdoers and prosecute those who fleece the government and ultimately harm the public good.