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Obama signs improper payments bill

From NBC's Athena Jones
In a bid to show voters his administration is concerned with reducing wasteful government spending, President Obama signed a bill aimed at cutting improper payments to individuals, organizations, and contractors.

The White House says payments made in the wrong amount, to the wrong person, or for the wrong reason totaled nearly $110 billion in 2009, the highest amount to date. The president noted that the $110 billion figure was more than the budgets of the Department of Education and the Small Business Administration combined, calling that "unacceptable."

The Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act (IPERA) is aimed at cutting such payments by $50 billion between now at 2012, through increased recapture auditing and other payment monitoring.

"We have to challenge a status quo that accepts billions of dollars in waste as a cost of doing business and enables obsolete or under-performing programs to survive year after year simply because that's the way things have always been done," Obama said during brief remarks in the State Dining Room. "When we continue to spend as if deficits don't matter that means our kids and our grand kids may wind up saddled with debts that they'll never be able to repay."

Even as the slow pace of the economic recovery has raised concerns among businesses, investors and consumers, many in the halls of Congress and the White House have been engaged in a debate about whether more federal stimulus is needed or whether the government should instead focus on deficit reduction. The discussion has even gone global, with European governments -- notably the coalition government in the United Kingdom -- determined to slash spending and Obama arguing that too much focus on deficit reduction could hurt the global recovery.

The president has argued for more help for states facing budget shortfalls and to boost lending for small businesses, while also showing a commitment to getting the nation's fiscal house in order by establishing a bipartisan debt commission to look at ways to reduce the deficit and by calling for a three-year freeze on non-defense discretionary spending. Obama said the freeze would reduce such spending to its lowest level as a percentage of the economy in 50 years -- or, as he put it, to the "lowest level since JFK."

In naming Jacob Lew as his choice to replace outgoing budget chief Peter Orszag -- who sat in the front row at today's event, the president made a point of noting that Lew was the only head of the Office of Management and Budget in history to have presided over a budget surplus for three consecutive years, a comment he repeated today.

Among examples of the kinds of payments the new law aims to stop are the $180 million in benefits paid out over the past three years to some 20,000 dead Americans and more than $230 million in benefits paid out in the same period to roughly 14,000 fugitive felons or people in jail who were not eligible for benefits.

Also on hand for the remarks where Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Tom Carper (D-DE), as well as Reps. Patrick Murphy (D-PA) and Dina Titus (D-NV).