The federal government is scheduled to spend $310 billion of your tax dollars this year on federal programs that are not authorized by law according to the Congressional Budget Office. That’s about a quarter of all so-called discretionary spending, so one of every four taxpayer dollars Congress spends is going to a program that is legally expired. It is a total breakdown of accountability and oversight and, unfortunately, it is business as usual in Washington. The good news is an innovative legislative solution has been proposed by Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers: automatic reductions in spending via sequestration for programs that remain unauthorized, and ultimately phasing them out completely unless Congress acts to reauthorize them.
There are 256 expired spending programs that were nonetheless funded this year. Not every unauthorized program is without merit. They range from the very large to the very small. All of NASA ($19 billion in 2016 appropriations) and the National Institutes for Health ($31 billion) are presently operating despite an expired authorization. On the smaller end, The Brown Tree Snake eradication program in Guam and the United States Poland Parliamentary Youth Exchange Program continue to be funded despite expired authorizations.
These major agencies and all of the other programs operating without legal authorization are set on autopilot, with no meaningful oversight from our elected officials in Congress to review their purpose, structure, or effectiveness with our tax dollars.
From an institutional standpoint, the vast majority of congressional committees have been made irrelevant, because programs in their jurisdiction continue—whether authorized or not.
In theory there is still an Appropriations Committee in each house to exercise some oversight, but those committees focus only on each year’s appropriations, making them inherently ill-equipped to evaluate the long-term aspects of program authorizations. Worse, in recent years appropriations have been rushed through under threat of government shutdown after backroom deals are brokered, making any oversight in the appropriations process nearly impossible.
So, more or less, everything gets funded, including programs that are wasteful, ineffective, or worse: actively destructive. Bureaucrats and regulators get funded annually with essentially blank checks to impose their own will rather than the desires of the American people expressed through our elected officials.
Rep. McMorris Rodgers’s bill restores Congress’s authorizing committees to their proper role.
The Unauthorized Spending Accountability (USA) Act of 2016, H.R. 4730, would penalize programs that do not seek and receive reauthorization with automatic spending cuts – enforced by the only mechanism we know cannot be easily sidestepped: sequestration.
“One big reason for all of this comes from something known in Washington DC as unauthorized spending, which prevents the American people from exercising their authority to review, to rethink, and perhaps eliminate government programs,” McMorris Rodgers said when she announced the bill.
Specifically, under the USA Act, any currently unauthorized program would face a 10 percent automatic sequestration cut next year and then a 15 percent cut in the following two years. In the fourth year, if Congress still failed to reauthorize or reform an unauthorized program, it would be eliminated. As programs expire in the future, they would be subject to the same phase out.
The bill would also create a commission to establish a schedule for Congress to act on reauthorizing all federal programs on a three year cycle, and to find savings in entitlement programs.
It is no secret that Congress wastes a lot of time in committee hearings and markups that ultimately have no impact on anything – because everything gets funded anyway in a big year-end package. Legislation like Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’s USA Act flips that autopilot switch off and actually closes federal programs that fail to justify their effectiveness. Finally.
Phil Kerpen is head of American Commitment and a leading free-market policy analyst and advocate in Washington. Kerpen was the principal policy and legislative strategist at Americans for Prosperity for over five years. He previously worked at the Free Enterprise Fund, the Club for Growth, and the Cato Institute. Kerpen is also a nationally syndicated columnist, chairman of the Internet Freedom Coalition, and author of the 2011 book "Democracy Denied."