We have the funds we need to secure the border

People who voted for President TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage MORE in 2016 did so for many different reasons. High on the list was his promise to construct a wall to eliminate, or at least reduce, the influx of illegal immigrants that has for some years been occurring along the southern border of the U.S.

Tuesday, the president hosted Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump defends 'crime buster' Giuliani amid reported probe Louisiana voters head to the polls in governor's race as Trump urges GOP support Trump urges Louisiana voters to back GOP in governor's race then 'enjoy the game' MORE (D-N.Y.) and likely Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden on impeachment: 'I'm the only reason' it's happening Democrats to offer resolution demanding Trump reverse Syria decision Rand Paul calls for probe of Democrats over Ukraine letter MORE (D-Calif.) to explore what it would take for them to support appropriations to defend the southern border. If you had any doubt before that meeting, it was clear after that money is not the stumbling point.  

The fact is, the border wall can be built with the government equivalent of coins found in the sofa cushions.

ADVERTISEMENT

All federal programs are susceptible to making improper payments. They can result from any number of factors, ranging from simple errors by the agency or the recipient, to negligence or gross incompetence by agencies, to criminal fraud amounting to theft of the funds taxpayers worked hard to earn and paid into the federal Treasury under penalty of law.

As you can imagine, this is not a new phenomenon. But it wasn’t until 2002 that Congress began requiring federal agencies to identify vulnerable programs and report to Congress an estimate of the improper payments they had made under them.

Before the act went into effect, agencies reported an estimated $20 billion in improper payments for fiscal year 2001. For fiscal year 2004, the first year the act was in effect, the number rose to $45 billion but was acknowledged to be incomplete, as it did not include all risk-susceptible programs.

Government agencies estimate they made about $141 billion in improper payments for 2017. Since reporting began in 2003, the estimated total is $1.4 trillion.

But these numbers don’t tell the whole story. It is up to each agency to determine on which programs it reports, and the amounts it estimates to have been improperly paid. Programs the agency doesn’t consider to be particularly vulnerable or to have an especially high rate or amount of improper payments are not included in the numbers it reports.

One of these omitted programs is the Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) program for which the IRS is responsible. Notwithstanding the urging of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) to do so, IRS does not classify the ACTC program as one requiring it to estimate and report improper payments.

For fiscal year 2017, the IRS improperly handed out $7.4 billion of ACTC, more than 23 percent of the total amount it paid out for this program. During this period, it also improperly handed out $16.2 billion in earned income tax credit (EITC), nearly 24 percent of the total it paid.

For years, the IRS has been asking Congress for authority to determine eligibility for these programs before paying out the credits claimed. And for years, Congress has declined to provide it. And once paid, with very few exceptions, those dollars are gone. They might as well be feathers in the wind.

ADVERTISEMENT

The cost of President Trump’s proposed border wall has been estimated to fall between $21 billion and $24 billion. People who think we can't afford that should consider that IRS not making improper payments on just these two programs — ACTC or EITC — for just one year would cover it.  

IRS is hardly the only federal agency making improper payments. For 2017, Health and Human Services (HHS) made $90 billion in improper payments. For a peek at the relative size of this amount, consider that the $854 billion spending bill Senate passed in August included a $2.3 billion funding increase for HHS.

That’s right, an agency that admits to having made at least $90 billion in improper payments last year gets a $2.3 billion increase in funding this year.

Lawmakers congratulate themselves when they reduce the tax rolls, i.e., relieve people of the obligation to pay taxes. The consequence of continuing to shrink the pool of people paying taxes, however, is to also shrink the portion of the population that cares that government takes an ever-increasing share of earnings and can’t be bothered to be a good steward of those funds.

Secure the southern border, President Trump. Americans are already paying more than enough in taxes to cover the cost.

Eileen J. O’Connor was assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Tax Division for six years during the administration of President George W. Bush and a member of then-President-elect Trump’s Treasury Department Transition Team.