As the finger pointing and accusations continue on sequestration — with many of those being pointed from home districts since the House and Senate were in recess this week despite this issue bearing down on them — one number that should be remembered is this: $44 billion.
The amount that will cut across the board on March 1 without some type of agreement in Congress is higher than that, of course, at $85 billion. But $44 billion would go a long way — more than half way, in fact — toward reaching that figure and eliminating the indiscriminate cuts.
That $44 billion is also the amount that the General Accounting Office estimated last week in its biennial report on high-risk federal programs was improperly paid in 2012 to a single federal program — Medicare.
"CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) has made progress measuring improper payments and now has an estimate for each part of the program," the GAO reported. "However, CMS will need to sustain progress in reducing improper payments and better addressing fraud and abuse by shifting more focus to prevention."
Medicaid, meanwhile, had an estimated $192 billion in improper payments in 2012, the GAO said in the report.
"The overall cost to the federal government as a result of high-risk issues facing the agency is unknown; however, the estimated magnitude of Medicaid improper payments — an estimated $19.2 billion in federal funds in 2012 — illustrates the challenge CMS faces in overseeing state Medicaid programs and improving state program integrity efforts. The importance of reducing the rate of improper payments is heightened by the expected increase in individuals eligible for Medicaid in the future under Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — an estimated 7 million in 2014, growing to 11 million in 2022," the GAO report stated.
With 28 more high-risk areas designated by the GAO, there is more wasteful spending waiting to be found.
What this means is that those in the House and Senate — and the White House — who say sequestration can only be avoided by raising taxes have not looked too closely, if at all, to how the federal government maintains its checkbook. Just by making sure that spending in these programs is conducted properly cuts billions of dollars in waste.
The cuts do not have to be across the board. If legislators and the president weren't so focused on protecting political turf, they could find wasteful spending and cut it out with surgical precision. The problem is few people inside the beltway, where federal spending translates to votes and votes translates into power, want to look. Anyone can address a problem by throwing more money at it, but it's a poor method of finding a solution to that problem.
Whether tax increases are needed to get the federal government's greater fiscal house in order is something that can be debated, but the wealthy and the working class have already seen tax increases this year. With gas pump prices rising and food and other expenses sure to follow, the strain on the taxpayer is enough.
It's time for our senators, representatives and president to have a serious discussion on this, and not one where a line is drawn in the sand. The answer to this $85 billion quandary — a crisis that was created by the Congress and White House — should be found through more prudent spending habits, not from plucking more money from the wallets of already stressed taxpayers.