The Republican Party is obsessed with fraud. Like tax cuts, it is a cause célèbre, even where fraud apparently is not a problem. So what’s going on here? Is the hunt for fraud taking place because there are real, systemic problems that must be addressed? Or is the hunt for fraud politically-motivated, a way of eliminating programs conservatives don’t like?
There’s an old saying in Washington that if politicians want to appear as if they’re doing something, they attack “waste, fraud and abuse.” Fraud — along with such platitudes such as the “taking on the special interests” — is an old standby for politicians.
Voter fraud has been a GOP mainstay since the days of the Bush administration, when the Justice Department, under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, became a politicized arm of the White House. The issue was promoted by Bush advisor Karl Rove and other administration officials, leading to the firing of eight U.S. attorneys who failed to investigate and prosecute flimsy or nonexistent election fraud cases.
Although claims of rampant abuse by ineligible voters make for a popular GOP talking point, voter fraud is rare, according to the bipartisan Election Assistance Commission. And according to the Brennan Center for Justice, voter fraud is exceedingly rare, so rare that one is more likely to be struck by lightning than commit voter fraud.
A fraud fetish by conservative lawmakers has paved the way for voter ID laws across the country, and what civil rights advocates view as intimidation tactics designed to suppress turnout among Democratic constituents — the poor, people of color, immigrants, students, the disabled and the elderly.
Further, as Advancement Project reports, these laws requiring a photo ID in order to vote are expensive for states and for voters. And as many as 5 million voters could be disenfranchised as a result. This week, the Justice Department struck down the Texas voter ID law on the grounds that it discriminates against Hispanics, and in December it blocked a similar law in South Carolina because it discriminates against minorities.
Stamping out food stamp fraud is another priority for Republicans, but once again, there is more smoke than fire. GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called President Obama the “food stamp president” and said millionaires use them, as conservatives claim that people use food stamps to buy guns and drugs.
Meanwhile, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California) House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a series of hearings on the subject.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has noted a long-term dip in food stamp fraud, with fraud accounting for less than one-half of 1 percent of the over 230,000 stores authorized to redeem food stamps, in a program that serves 46 million people each month. There are outliers, such as charges against three Detroit men in a $262,000 food stamp fraud case.
But as former U.S. Assistant Surgeon General Susan Blumenthal recently wrote in the Huffington Post, ”[w]hile there is always room for improvement, it is a clear exaggeration to suggest that fraud is widespread within SNAP” — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as the Federal Food Stamp Program.
According to Blumenthal, a decade of USDA oversight and an electronic benefit transfer system have resulted in record low levels of food stamp fraud — 1 cents per dollar of benefits, down from 3.8 cents in 1993. Perhaps the bigger scandal in need of hearings is that 46 million people in America require food stamps to live because they cannot afford to buy food.
Another Republican fixation is Medicare fraud. The difference here is that this type of fraud actually exists and is a big problem — most notably in Republican-led states. For example, the Houston Chronicle documented hundreds of millions of dollars fraudulently paid to private ambulance companies under Medicare. In addition, A Dallas doctor and five owners of home health agencies were arrested recently, in a case alleging a $375 million fraud scheme.
In Florida, the owner of a Miami halfway house was sentenced to two years in prison, as part of a Medicare kickback scheme that charged the federal government for over $200 million in unnecessary expenses.
The Medicare Fraud Strike Force, formed in 2007, and in nine locations across the country, has charged nearly 1,200 people who together charged Medicare for over $3.6 billion. Meanwhile, over the past decade, the major pharmaceutical companies have paid $8 billion in fines for defrauding Medicare and Medicaid. Pfizer has paid $3 billion in fines since 2002, while Merck has paid $1.6 billion since 2008. Last year, drug companies spent over $200 million lobbying Congress.
And in 1997, Rick Scott, now the Republican governor of Florida, was implicated in the largest Medicare fraud case in U.S. history. As head of hospital giant Columbia/HCA, Scott was implicated in the company’s theft of $1.7 billion from the government. Now as governor, Scott has tried to nix an anti-fraud database to track fraudulent prescription drug distribution, in a state where prescription drug addiction is prevalent. Scott also wants to privatize Medicaid, and give a $1.7 billion tax break to corporations and property owners.
In the name of fiscal austerity and smaller government, conservatives often target social welfare programs for the chopping block. During last year’s budget battle, budget committee chairman Rep. Paul Ryan proposed a budget that would have ended Medicare as we know it. His plan would have been an effective gutting and privatization of the federal program, transforming it into a voucher scheme for the purchase of private health insurance.
Just to recap: Voter fraud is not a problem, and Republicans have manufactured the issue, making voter ID a solution searching for a problem, at the cost of millions of disenfranchised voters. Food stamp fraud is very limited; the Republican fixation on it suggests that they simply don’t like food stamps. And Medicare fraud is a big problem, but there is also proof that Republicans are politically motivated to eliminate the program, given their failed attempt to do so last year.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove