While the nuts and bolts of the farm bill will be hashed out in Congress for the next several months, much of the debate this week was overshadowed by a General Accountability Office study reporting USDA paid more than $1 billion dollars in farm payments to more than 170,000 dead people over 7 years.
The study by the investigative arm of Congress was initiated by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. And this week, the GAO and the USDA were called before the Committee to testify about the findings.
The report, conducted by the Government Accountability Office, detailed farm payments to more than 170,000 deceased farmers from 1999 to 2005 – totaling $1.1 billion dollars. The GAO report listed multiple cases of what some lawmakers are calling broad payment abuse. One instance involves a farmer who died in 1995 but received $400,000 in farm subsidies between 1999 and 2005.
Lisa Shames, Government Accountability Office: "We found in the file review that USDA officials did not look for bank account records and other documents that would ensure farm subsidy recipients were eligible."
But USDA Sec. Mike Johanns defends the structure of farm programs, arguing that payments are not made to individuals but to farming operations. He added that payments should not abruptly cease following a death in the family. According to the GAO report: "under certain conditions, estates may receive payments for the first 2 years after an individual's death."
GAO officials said some payments went on years longer and in a Senate Committee Hearing this week, the USDA acknowledged the problem.
Glen Keppy, USDA Farm Service Agency: "While GAO has identified weaknesses, FSA has taken steps to remedy these weaknesses and put in place additional safeguards to prevent improper payments."
One newly implemented USDA safeguard includes matching subsidy recipients with the Social Security Death Master File.
Sen. Charles Grassley assured farmers that the Senate hearings were not an attempt to vilify recipients of farm payments or to demand major overhauls to the farm safety net.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa: "We want people who receive payments legitimately to continue to receive those payments."
Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln also cautioned policymakers to not base their views solely on the "headlines of farm payments to dead farmers."
Blanche Lincoln, D-Arkansas: "In some and in many of these instances, the estates are legally eligible for these payments. They should be getting these payments because this is the way we've structured the law."
But David Walker, the nation's Comptroller General and top GAO official, says the payments are a classic example of wasteful spending.
David Walker, GAO Comptroller General: