Op eds

This op-ed by Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) first appeared in The Hill on May 7, 2020.

The coronavirus waterboarded the American economy. Congress had to pass the CARES Act and several other stimulus measures to get money to the American people and their businesses, which together cost nearly $3 trillion, with more likely to come. We don’t even have 5 percent of what we spent. We had to borrow it, which will add to the $23 trillion pre-virus national debt.

As part of the CARES Act, the IRS is sending $290 billion in direct cash payments to an estimated 170 million individuals. At least 88 million Americans have received checks or direct deposits to their bank accounts. While millions of Americans still await relief money, though, countless dead people already have an extra $1,200 in the bank. You heard me correctly: The federal government paid dead people. It happens all the time, and the federal government has known about the problem for years.

In Louisiana, for example, a Livingston Parish (in Louisiana, we call our counties “parishes”) woman says she filed taxes on behalf of her deceased mother in 2019 and kept open the bank account her mother once used. She was surprised to see a $1,200 credit from the IRS posted to her mother’s old account. The same resident reports that a friend’s mother also got a relief check even though she had passed on. This is happening nationwide.

It has also happened before. In three states alone, the Social Security Administration (SSA) paid more than $40 million to 500 dead people in 2018, according to a number of recent inspector general reports. In one instance, the SSA made payments totaling more than $380,000 to the account of someone who died more than 40 years ago. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, more than 71,500 dead Social Security recipients received $250 stimulus payments under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Practically every federal agency that disburses taxpayer money is part of the problem. The federal Office of Personnel Management inspector general found in a 2011 report that $601 million was paid to federal retirees who had died over the previous five years. Medicare routinely pays millions for health care services and medical equipment “prescribed” to dead people. A 2015 audit also found that the IRS database included 6.5 million individuals who were still recorded as being alive even though they would all have been at least 112 years old.

Sometimes the relatives of deceased Americans receiving money from the government return the money, but often not. The money is spent. That’s called fraud, but it’s not cost-effective to chase down the fraudsters.

Even under normal circumstances, we should not tolerate this level of waste and incompetence, but COVID-19 has landed us far from normal times. The U.S. has lost 30 million jobs and rising and added trillions to its national debt in a matter of weeks. We’re trying to revive the economy with borrowed funds on borrowed time, and there’s no room for unforced errors like sending money to people who don’t need it and can’t reinvest it in our economy. Even the most fiscally unfettered politician can’t justify cutting checks to people who are not even alive.

Accuracy and accountability are not too much to ask for here, especially when the stakes are this high and we know what’s fueling the missteps. I have repeatedly urged Congress to address the gaping holes in our national databases that allow dead Americans to receive government benefits. It’s not a difficult fix.

The SSA maintains the most complete federal database of individuals reported to have died. It’s called the Death Master File. It is slightly more accurate than a Jussie Smollett police report. OK, that’s unfair, but even the SSA admits that not all of its death records are correct. Duh. When other federal agencies use the Death Master File, the mistakes are passed on, even though the SSA says it warns about the file’s shortcomings.

Moreover, only a small number of federal agencies have access to this official list, imperfect though it may be. Why? Because the SSA won’t share it with them. The SSA’s position is it does not have the statutory authority. Instead, the SSA provides the excluded agencies with an abbreviated list that reportedly is only 60 percent complete.

All of this is, of course, a national embarrassment, but it is easily remedied if Congress would get off its ice-cold lazy butt and pass the Stopping Improper Payments to Deceased People Act that Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and I introduced in 2019. The bill would require the SSA and every federal agency to update its death records and keep them updated, allow federal agencies access to each other’s databases of deceased citizens, and direct agencies to use this information to curb improper payments. The bill would also require states and federal agencies to share information on deaths more effectively while providing the resources necessary for them to make those improvements.

The Senate should take up and pass the Stopping Improper Payments to Deceased People Act immediately. The House should quickly follow. No fair-minded member of Congress could possibly object.

I’ve heard of allowing dead people to vote, but sending them taxpayer money is a bridge too far.