Who cares if the IRS gave stimulus checks to dead people?

A sign says Internal Revenue Service Building outside a building in DC

Leave the IRS alone.

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It turns out that the federal government sent more than 1 million coronavirus relief payments to deceased people. That’s according to a report released Thursday by the Government Accountability Office, which obtained breathless coverage from the Washington Post. describing “disclosure” as a problem of “astonishing scope.”

In fact, it is anything but. The IRS has sent more than 160 million economic impact payments, worth $ 269.3 billion since Congress passed the CARES Act in March. Of all those direct deposits, checks and debit cards, the GAO says 1.1 million, or 0.4 percent of the total, worth around $ 1.4 billion, went to deceased people. We are literally talking about a rounding error that appears to have been the product of Washington’s efforts to get money to Americans as quickly as possible in the midst of an economic and public health disaster. The Post writes: “The report makes clear how mistakes were made in the mad rush to pass legislation to shore up a free-falling economy amidst an unprecedented pandemic.” But even calling this a “mistake” is overkill, since the alternative was to delay the much-needed aid delivery process.

This is what seems to have happened. The IRS was required to send stimulus payments to Americans based on the information contained in their 2018 or 2019 tax returns. According to the GAO, IRS attorneys determined that “it had no legal authority to deny payments to those who filed a return for 2019, even if they had died at the time of payment. ” Technically, they could have used the death records from the Social Security Administration to verify if the people who filed a tax return for 2018, but not 2019, were still alive. But they decided not to do it for the sake of speed.

This approach was not even unprecedented. To comply with the CARES Act’s mandate to deliver payments “as quickly as possible,” GAO explains, “Treasury officials said the Treasury and the IRS used many of the operating policies and procedures developed in 2008 for payments. of stimulus, and therefore did not use death records as a filter to stop payments to the deceased in the first three batches of payments. ” Ultimately, the Treasury and the IRS reversed course and concluded that they actually had the legal power to deny checks to deceased persons, and began to verify that the recipients were alive in their fourth batch of payments.

On the Richter scale of failures in public policies, this is barely registered; I’m pretty sure the republic will survive if some widows get a $ 1,200 preloaded debit card that was meant for their dead husbands. But GAO is a government watchdog that exists to eradicate things like improper payments and believes that the government could have done everything possible to avoid them, and should make a greater effort to get the money back. He says so far, the agency has put a message on its website urging people to return the payments that were sent to the deceased, but not much else.

The real headline here should be that the government did its job pretty well. When Congress passed the CARES Act, many were concerned about how quickly the government could get money out the door. But in two weeks, the IRS had managed to deliver 80 million payments electronically. Its speed is part of the reason why poorer households were able to start spending normally again in May despite an unemployment rate that rivals that of the Great Depression.

The fact that the Post instead, treating this topic as a minor scandal reflects a broader problem of how some news organizations have covered the government’s response to the coronavirus. Rather than focus on general policy questions about whether the programs were helping the economy as expected, many media outlets have focused on trying to track down every instance of people and businesses that raise cash that they may not have deserved. This phenomenon was most pronounced in the case of the Paycheck Protection Program, where journalists and activists insisted on how some larger companies like Shake Shack were initially able to obtain loans through the rescue of small businesses, instead of focusing on more issues. fundamental as if the effort was adequately funded or if its rules made any sense. The entire phenomenon even earned a nickname: “PPP embarrassing,” and probably stymied the entire effort a bit, forcing the Treasury Department to try to suppress public outcry by issuing a bunch of confusing edicts about which companies were eligible for the program. instead of solving basic questions about it, such as how loan forgiveness would really work. (They only got to that in late May.)

It is not a mystery why some journalists prioritize their coverage in this way. “The dead man receives money” is the kind of basic, nonpartisan leather shoe story that many reporters are conditioned to write. It is primitive, and in some cases, it is really important for public accountability purposes. But without a proper context, it creates an appearance of deep bureaucratic incompetence where none exists and makes politicians less likely to endorse the kinds of quick and decisive bailouts the economy needs to survive right now. (If you want incompetence, look at the Trump administration’s public health flaws.) The Post itself seems to realize this. “The news that so much money has gone to the dead could increase the reluctance of some Republicans to accept more direct aid payments,” the newspaper suggests. Perhaps politicians would not overreact if journalists did not either.