The sun never sets on temporary government programs. Until now.
© Getty Images

Most people know that the majority of federal spending happens automatically. Much has been made of so-called mandatory spending, and with good reason. Nearly two-thirds of the $3.5 trillion the federal government spent last year was on programs like Social Security and Medicare, which regularly grow without ever getting a vote.

What fewer people might realize is that a large portion of the discretionary budget has also developed into its own form of autopilot spending. Much like a business owner has to approve expense reports before writing checks, federal lawmakers are supposed to authorize spending programs before “writing the checks,” or appropriating funds.

More often than not, though, the government just keeps writing checks — to the tune of over $300 billion every year — without proper authorization.

ADVERTISEMENT

Twenty years ago, about 10 percent of discretionary spending was not properly authorized. Today, that total is 30 percent, with a startling 57 percent of all non-defense discretionary spending going to unauthorized programs.

 

Ronald Reagan famously said that there is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program, an observation that arguably rings even truer today. Skipping authorization can mean that programs intended to sunset continue past their expiration dates while no one is the wiser.

But if this issue calls to mind frivolous spending on wasteful and insignificant budget items, that impression is only half-correct. Many major departments have been operating without proper authorization for years, too. For instance, the Bureau of Land Management hasn’t been reauthorized since 1996, and the State Department has been operating without budget authorization since 2003.

Whether unauthorized programs are widely considered vital national interests or obvious absurdities, inefficiency exists across government. When budgets go on autopilot, it is that much harder to consider priorities and root out waste.

These concerns have prompted lawmakers to introduce the Unauthorized Spending Accountability Act of 2017. A version introduced in the House in 2016 garnered 75 co-sponsors. This year, perhaps, there is a chance under united government for it to become law. Anyone looking for tangible progress on reining in Washington’s profligate spending habits should be excited at the opportunity.

In short, the bill would attempt to force lawmakers to step back and evaluate whether every program should continue getting funding, year after year, by simply making them follow their own process. Under the bill, every unauthorized program would begin to sunset within three years, starting with automatic reductions every year a program is not authorized. If the program is deemed to be worthwhile, reauthorizing it will allow it to operate at its full funding level.

The bill would also establish a Spending Accountability Commission that would be charged with setting an authorization schedule for every discretionary program, reviewing all mandatory programs and assisting in finding cuts to offset new spending once programs are reauthorized. In perhaps the simplest terms, the USA Act offers the potential of future responsibility more than it does a magic bullet that will solve the nation’s fiscal imbalances.

One could imagine ways to circumvent these attempts at responsibility — situations in which lawmakers avoid deliberation and instead use the bill’s passage as motivation to run through the authorization process without any serious discussion, or even authorize all spending en masse. But with a $20 trillion debt looming over our nation’s future, lawmakers have no excuses for avoiding reform, large or small.

Deep dysfunction has characterized America’s budget process for decades, and as Congress gears up for yet another self-imposed spending crisis, we would be wise to learn the lessons of the past.

It is a step toward a more deliberative, responsible process — and one that Congress should take as quickly as possible.

 

Jonathan Bydlak is the founder and president of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocate for reduced federal spending and balanced budgets.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.