As the U.S. Department of Agriculture scrambles to reduce between $2 billion and $3 billion in spending through the rest of the fiscal year, an audit by its Office of the Inspector General reports it blew twice that amount last year in improper payments.
Congress requires high-risk USDA programs to meet several objectives, including decreasing improper payment rates to below 10 percent of total payments. Payments made in an incorrect amount, or that shouldn't have been made at all, are considered improper.
According to the audit, in 2012 the department made $5.5 billion in improper payments.
A couple of USDA programs were worthy of special note in the audit. The Food and Nutrition Service's National School Lunch Program had a payment error rate of 15 percent, while 25 percent of payments by the National Breakfast Program were improper. Auditors say the USDA's estimates that 4 percent of crop insurance payments were improper were likely "understated."
USDA notes that it has made progress. It's overall error rate dropped from 5.37 percent in 2011 to 5.11 percent last year. And that would be worth celebrating had the actual dollar amount of the improper payments not increased by $100 million.
The USDA says one of the problems is that its accounting systems are so complicated that its difficult to identify the improper payments before they are made. That led one wag to suggest that if the department is unable to get a handle on its improper payments, Congress will have to appropriate more money to tackle the problem.
If that's the case, we hope it is able to get more than 95 cents of solution out of every dollar it spends.