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According to a report from the Government Accountability Office, the federal government paid up to $36 million in farm subsidies to dead people between 2008 and 2012.

In a 25-page report titled “USDA Needs to Do More to Prevent Improper Payments to Deceased Individuals,” the GAO determined that several U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies “do not have procedures in place consistent with federal internal control standards to prevent potentially improper subsidies on behalf of deceased individuals.” Among other findings, the GAO determined:

—The USDA’s Risk Management Agency paid up to $22 million in subsidies and allowances on behalf of an estimated 3,434 program policyholders two or more years after death;
—The USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service made an estimated $10.6 million in payments on behalf of 1,103 deceased individuals one year or more after death;
—The USDA’s Farm Service Agency paid $3.3 million in benefits to thousands of deceased individuals, of which it has managed to recover approximately $1 million.

The wasted money was part of the USDA’s $20 billion annual spending on federal programs that support farm income, conserve natural resources, and help farmers manage risks from natural disasters.

The GAO’s report comes at a politically sensitive time, as Congress prepares to negotiate a new trillion-dollar farm bill. The process has been tense and divisive thus far; House Speaker John Boehner’s initial efforts to pass the bill resulted in a humiliating defeat due to House Republicans’ insistence that it did not cut enough from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Boehner later passed a farm bill that left the agricultural subsidies — including those that have apparently been paid to dead people — intact, while dropping food stamps and nutrition programs altogether.

Although the $36 million in wasted subsidies is a relative drop in the bucket considering the overall size of the bill, it could be a consequential political symbol. Republicans have repeatedly cited fraud as a reason to cut SNAP — even though error rates in the program are actually at an all-time low — raising the question of why they are not raising similar concerns about agricultural subsidies.

Even if House Republicans won’t question the legitimacy of the subsidies, the GAO will. Its report pointedly questions “whether these farm safety net programs are benefiting the agricultural sector as intended.”

The full GAO report can be read here.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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