Government spending: yes, it really can cut the U.S. deficit

Hypocrisy is not scarce in the world of politics. But the current House and Senate budget resolutions set new lows. Each proposes to cut about $5 trillion from government spending over the next decade in pursuit of a balanced budget. Whatever one may think of putting the goal of reducing spending when the ratio of the debt-to-GDP is projected to be stable above investing in the nation’s future, you would think that deficit-reduction hawks wouldn’t cut spending that has been proven to lower the deficit.

Yes, there are expenditures that actually lower the deficit, typically by many dollars for each dollar spent. In this category are outlays on ‘program integrity’ to find and punish fraud, tax evasion, and plain old bureaucratic mistakes. You might suppose that those outlays would be spared. Guess again. Consider the following:

Medicare. Roughly 10% of Medicare’s $600 billion budget goes for what officials delicately call ‘improper payments, according to the 2014 financial report of the Department of Health and Human Services. Some are improper merely because providers ‘up-code’ legitimate services to boost their incomes. Some payments go for services that serve no valid purpose. And some go for phantom services that were never provided. Whatever the cause, approximately $60 billion of improper payments is not ‘chump change.’

Medicare tries to root out these improper payments, but it lacks sufficient staff to do the job. What it does spend on ‘program integrity’ yields an estimated $14.40? for each dollar spent, about $10 billion a year in total. That number counts only directly measurable savings, such as recoveries and claim denials. A full reckoning of savings would add in the hard-to-measure ‘policeman on the beat’ effect that discourages violations by would-be cheats.

Fat targets remain. A recent report from the Institute of Medicine presented findings that veritably scream ‘fraud.’ Per person spending on durable medical equipment and home health care is ten times higher in Miami-Dade County, Florida than the national average. Such equipment and home health accounts for nearly three-quarters of the geographical variation in per person Medicare spending. Yet, only 4% of current recoveries of improper payments come from audits of these two items and little from the highest spending locations.

Why doesn’t Medicare spend more and go after the remaining overpayments, you may wonder? The simple answer is that Congress gives Medicare too little money for administration. Direct overhead expenses of Medicare amount to only about 1.5% of program outlays—6% if one includes the internal administrative costs of private health plans that serve Medicare enrollees. Medicare doesn’t need to spend as much on administration as the average of 19% spent by private insurers, because for example, Medicare need not pay dividends to private shareholders or advertise.

But spending more on Medicare administration would both pay for itself—$2 for each added dollar spent, according to the conservative estimate in the President’s most recent budget—and improve the quality of care. With more staff, Medicare could stop more improper payments and reduce the use of approved therapies in unapproved ways that do no good and may cause harm.

Taxes. Compare two numbers: $540 billion and $468 billion. The first number is the amount of taxes owed but not paid. The second number is the projected federal budget deficit for 2015, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Collecting all taxes legally owed but not paid is an impossibility. It just isn’t worth going after every violation. But current enforcement falls far short of practical limits. Expenditures on enforcement directly yields $4 to $6 for each dollar spent on enforcement. Indirect savings are many times larger—the cop-on-the-beat effect again. So, in an era of ostentatious concern about budget deficits, you would expect fiscal fretting in Congress to lead to increased efforts to collect what the law says people owe in taxes.

Wrong again. Between 2010 and 2014, the IRS budget was cut in real terms by 20%. At the same time, the agency had to shoulder new tasks under health reform, as well as process an avalanche of applications for tax exemptions unleashed by the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. With less money to spend and more to do, enforcement staff dropped by 15% and inflation adjusted collections dropped 13%.

One should acknowledge that enforcement will not do away with most avoidance and evasion. Needlessly complex tax laws are the root cause of most tax underpayment. Tax reform would do even more than improved administration to increase the ratio of taxes paid to taxes due. But until that glorious day when Congress finds the wit and will to make the tax system simpler and fairer, it would behoove a nation trying to make ends meet to spend $2 billion to $3 billion more each year to directly collect $10 billion to 15 billion a year more of legally owed taxes and, almost certainly, raise far more than that by frightening borderline scoff-laws.

Disability Insurance. Thirteen million people with disabling conditions who are judged incapable of engaging in substantial gainful activity received $161 billion in disability insurance in 2013. If the disabling conditions improve enough so that beneficiaries can return to work, benefits are supposed to be stopped. Such improvement is rare. But when administrators believe that there is some chance, the law requires them to check. They may ask beneficiaries to fill out a questionnaire or, in some cases, undergo a new medical exam at government expense. Each dollar spent in these ways generated an estimated $16 in savings in 2013.

Still, the Social Security Administration is so understaffed that SSA has a backlog of 1.3 million disability reviews. Current estimates indicate that spending a little over $1 billion a year more on such reviews over the next decade would save $43 billion. Rather than giving Social Security the staff and spending authority to work down this backlog and realize those savings, Congress has been cutting the agency’s administrative budget and sequestration threatens further cuts.

Claiming that better administration will balance the budget would be wrong. But it would help. And it would stop some people from shirking their legal responsibilities and lighten the burdens of those who shoulder theirs. The failure of Congress to provide enough staff to run programs costing hundreds of billions of dollars a year as efficiently and honestly as possible is about as good a definition of criminal negligence as one can find.