What Washington can agree on

Massive spending bills like the two infrastructure measures have brought bipartisan attention to preventing fraud.

AP
Members of a band celebrate during a ribbon cutting ceremony to open the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C., Sept. 7.

It has been difficult to find much coolheaded bipartisanship during Washington’s hothouse debate over two spending bills on infrastructure. Yet one aspect has drawn many Democratic and Republican lawmakers together. They want honest accounting for such massive spending, which could top $4 trillion. Fraud and waste of taxpayers’ money serve neither party.

One example is a set of bipartisan bills in the Senate to update the False Claims Act. That statute, called the “Lincoln Law” after being enacted during the Civil War, penalizes anyone who files false claims to the government. “In light of the trillions of dollars that Congress has appropriated recently for COVID relief, these bills are needed, more than ever, to fight the significant amounts of fraud that we are already seeing,” says Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa.

After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress pumped more than $800 billion into the economy, but with enough transparency and oversight provisions to be called a relative success in preventing fraud and waste. The package included $416 million to increase the number of inspectors general. Investigators were able to recover $11 billion from corrupt diversions of the money.

Similar provisions were put into last year’s CARES Act (the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) and other related pandemic relief legislation that hav spent some $5 trillion. Critics wanted even tougher measures, especially in protecting whistleblowers. But the Justice Department has been able to recover at least $2 billion from fraudulent claims.

In addition, the CARES Act set up a special group of federal inspectors general called the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. It is now seen as a model in overseeing massive federal programs.

The lesser of the two infrastructure bills in the House does have measures to prevent corruption, such as awarding grants on a competitive basis and allocating money for transparent oversight of spending. Much more can surely be added. But with the recent history of both large and emergency spending since 2008, Washington does have an active and largely bipartisan debate on fraud prevention. Such honest governance may provide a baseline for bipartisanship in passing at least one infrastructure bill.

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