U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, is a soft-spoken guy who now wields a mighty gavel.
Boustany is on the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, which handles government tax and revenues as it pertains to everything from trade to health care. More importantly, Boustany is chairman of the subcommittee on oversight that investigates waste, fraud and abuse as it relates to tax dollars.
Since taking over the post in January, Boustany has held six hearings, more than the number held in the last four years combined.
The topics have included $8 billion in overpayments from the Social Security system, improper payments arising from refundable tax credits that have cost taxpayers an estimated $106 billion in the last decade and the tax status of the AARP senior-citizens group.
“We see problems coming out from various groups that will point out a deficiency at IRS or the Treasury for instance, and it raises questions and we’ll just decide whether to investigate it further,” Boustany said.
The most-recent hearing concerned overpayments by the Social Security Administration, mostly to people receiving supplemental payments directed to the poor and disabled. Though 99 percent of the $660 billion paid out by Social Security was accurate, even the slim margin of faulty payments translated to $8 billion.
What the subcommittee will do, Boustany said, is go back and see where the agency can improve or review whether legislative changes are needed.
Earlier in the year, Boustany chaired a subcommittee hearing to investigate improper payments of federal tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, the additional Child Tax Credit and the First Time Homebuyer Tax Credit.
The IRS had issued $83 billion in improper payments to the earned income credit alone, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Even IRS employees were receiving fraudulent payments, Boustany said.
One of the more-controversial hearings held by the subcommittee involved AARP. Boustany and his subcommittee colleagues summoned AARP leaders to a congressional hearing to defend its not-for-profit status.
The Republican-led committee pointed to $656 million in royalties the AARP gets each year by offering financial products, such as AARP-endorsed insurance.
The group doesn’t sell insurance, but receives royalties from private plans to which it lends its name. The royalties amount to 60 percent of the $1 billion the AARP collects each year that includes charging members an $18 membership fee. Boustany and his fellow Republicans questioned whether the group that represents 14 million seniors has moved beyond its mission.
AARP executives challenged the subcommittee, saying that all of the money went to the mission. The subcommittee took heat from critics who contended that the panel was going after the group because it backed President Barack Obama’s health-care law a year earlier. Boustany rejects the argument.
“We’ve seen a significant increase in their for-profit entities, while their nonprofit spending has either remained flat or declined,” Boustany said.
Over the next few years, as long as Republicans retain control of the House, Boustany should be at the front of the mix in proposed changes to the federal tax code. The last sweeping reforms of the law took place 25 years ago under President Ronald Reagan.
The changes are necessary because the complex provisions impede business, both foreign and domestic, that have a difficult time complying with it.
“The tax code is 10 times bigger than the Bible,” Boustany said. “But it lacks the good news.”
Being on the committee provides a nice perch, Boustany said.
“It has an impact on basically everything we do from a legislative standpoint because everything we do has an impact on revenue and the tax code,” Boustany said. “It’s a good place to be.”
Gerard Shields is chief of The Advocate’s Washington bureau. His email address is GerardShields@aol.com.