Evan Soltas
Jun 29, 2013

The Case for Watchdogs

(Originally published here.)

The federal government needs to be more efficient -- that's an opinion you hear all the time, especially among conservatives. Suggestions usually focus on getting the government to do less. Getting it to do the same things better receives little attention and that's a shame. One good way to improve efficiency is to spend more on inspectors general of federal agencies, eligibility reviews for government benefits and the Government Accountability Office. Look no further than yesterday's report from the Treasury Department's Inspector General that the Internal Revenue Service spent $50 million on conferences over two years.

The aim is to scour the government for waste and fraud. Spending on this task usually pays for itself. Inspectors general, disability reviewers and the GAO cover their costs many times over. At the Department of Veterans' Affairs, the inspector general saved $33 for every dollar spent, according to the office's latest report. The inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services (the federal government's largest IG office) saved $3.8 billion in the first half of 2013. Its budget request for the next fiscal year is $389 million.

Checking eligibility wrings savings from entitlement programs. The Social Security Administration carries out "continuing disability reviews" to update the status of beneficiaries. These save $10 for every dollar spent, Carolyn W. Colvin, the agency's deputy commissioner,told Congress. Similar reviews for Supplemental Security Income save $7 for every dollar spent.

If Congress were rational, it would pay for more work of this kind. The rate of return would no doubt fall if efforts were stepped up -- but it has a long way to drop before a dollar spent on inspections yields only a dollar of savings. The case for doing more is all the stronger amid a wave of scandals. More inspectors would catch improper conduct sooner and more reliably.

Washington may be coming around, but its record is erratic. The number of disability reviews fell from 800,000 in the first year of the George W. Bush administration to 200,000 in its last year, according to testimony from Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary for the Social Security Administration. Under President Barack Obama, the number has recovered to 400,000, and the administration is aiming for 900,000. The number of SSI redeterminations has also rebounded under Obama.

This was a big failure of the Bush administration. President Ronald Reagan ramped up the reviews -- so much so that it caused an outcry -- following a law that passed at the end of the Jimmy Carter administration. The logic of this Carter-Reagan reform was simple: If you receive public support, government has the right and the obligation to check your eligibility.

Good government is not automatic, and reviews and inspections are no guarantee. But Washington should put more efficiency cops on the beat. The cost is less than nothing.