By Rachael Bade
A Senate panel on Wednesday backed three bipartisan oversight measures, including one that would expand a requirement for agencies to identify and stop payments made in error to contractors and program beneficiaries.
The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee gave voice vote approval to advance an amended bill (S 1409) that would fortify an existing law (PL 111-204) to curb government overpayments and mispayments, including payments awarded to the wrong people and Social Security checks sent to dead people.
“Although we have made great strides in curbing improper payments in the past year, we still have a ways to go,” said panel member Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., who introduced the bill in July.
Federal agencies in fiscal 2010 signed off on more than $125 billion in erroneous payments, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study released in April. The Office of Personnel Management reported in late September, for example, that it had made $601 million in improper payments to deceased federal retirees over a span of five years.
The bill would require the Office of Management and Budget to issue new rules to agencies requiring more consistent and complete estimates of overpayments. According to Carper, some departments, including the Defense Department, rely on contractors to self-report overpayments.
The bill would also codify an executive order regarding the establishment of a government-wide “Do Not Pay” database, which will compile a list of people ineligible for payments and contractors who are no longer allowed to work with the government. The initiative would require agencies to verify the crosscheck with the database before doling out checks.Whistleblower Protection
The panel also approved by voice vote an amended measure (S 743) that would extend whistleblower protections to federal employees who disclose evidence of censorship related to research, analysis or technical information.
A bipartisan delegation of lawmakers has been trying to advance the legislation for years. Last Congress, both chambers passed different versions of a similar bill, but they never reconciled the two versions.
The National Whistleblower Center wrote in a letter to the committee saying the legislation doesn’t go far enough in protecting government workers.
“Although the bill contains a number of important and meaningful reforms, overall it falls short of the changes needed to implement an effective federal employee whistleblower system,” the letter stated.
The center’s executive director, Stephen M. Kohn, said 58 percent of fraud cases are uncovered by employees while law enforcement officials uproot only 4 percent.
“That’s actual cash returned to the taxpayer,” he said, adding that government workers should feel safe disclosing such information.
The committee also gave voice vote approval to a third amended bill (S 237) that would clarify the GAO’s authority to obtain any federal agency records it needs to carry out investigations, evaluations or audits.
“It is absolutely outrageous that agencies in the federal government are refusing information to the GAO,” said panel Ranking Republican Susan Collins of Maine, citing the Health and Human Services Department’s denial of GAO’s request for access to the National Directory of New Hires.