The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Making Unauthorized Spending Wrong Again

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


As President Donald J. Trump continues his campaign to “Make America Great Again,” Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) will borrow on that theme, as described in the title of this article, by continuing to advocate for reforms of the way that Congress does business.  One of the best efforts in this regard is H.R. 2174, Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ (R-Wash.) Unauthorized Spending Accountability (USA) Act, which she introduced on April 26, 2017.

On her website, Rep. McMorris Rodgers promotes the USA Act as follows:  “A big part of the problem is due to what people in Washington, D.C. call ‘unauthorized spending’ – spending on government programs that have not been authorized by the people’s representatives.  This means that the American people are prevented from exercising their power of the purse.  When unauthorized spending is stopped through the USA Act, it will reclaim power for every man, woman, and child in this country.”

The USA Act seeks to end the practice of appropriating funds for programs that are no longer authorized.  The bill puts all unauthorized programs on the path to sunset after three years, subjecting them to a rolling sequester.  The programs would continue to receive 90 percent of current appropriations after the first year, with continued funding at 85 percent in the second and third years.  Then, if the program is still not reauthorized, it would be sunset at the end of the third fiscal year after expiration, with no funding in the fourth year and beyond.

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), in fiscal year (FY) 2016, Congress appropriated $310.4 billion to 256 programs and activities that are no longer authorized.  Two decades ago, unauthorized programs, at $35 billion, represented 10 percent of the discretionary budget; today, they amount to 30 percent of total discretionary spending.

H.R. 2174 has been modified slightly from H.R. 4730, the version of the USA Act that was introduced in the 114th Congress on March 24, 2016, but died in committee.  The two most significant changes are, first, to allow spending cuts to be accomplished through an adjustment in the top-line budget allocation, rather than a mandatory rescission to the specified program.  For example, if the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) remains unauthorized and otherwise subject to a mandatory sequester, and assuming that (for whatever reason) the FBI’s mandatory reauthorization cannot be completed according to the specified timetable, then the bill allows Congress the flexibility to identify the amount of funds necessary to offset the required sequester elsewhere in the budget.  This legislative change also allowed for the bill to be subject to three committee referrals, rather than four, by eliminating consideration from the Appropriations Committee.  H.R. 2174 was referred to the House committees on Oversight and Government Reform, Rules, and Budget.

The second significant change to the bill was the removal of the agency heads from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to hold positions on the proposed Spending Accountability Commission (SAC).  Since each agency chief is also subject to congressional appointment and approval, the potential for a conflict of interest existed.  By requiring instead that each agency simply provide the analytical resources necessary to fully inform the commission’s decisions, the potential conflict can be mitigated.

Otherwise, the structure of the legislation remains largely unchanged.  The bill imposes a “mandatory sequester and sunset” for unauthorized programs:  it puts all such programs on a “pathway to sunset” in three years, as described above.  In the first year after expiration, a program’s overall budget authority is cut by 10 percent, then by 15 percent in the second and third years, with termination in the fourth year.

The bill establishes the SAC to accomplish three objectives:  establish an authorization schedule for all discretionary programs; conduct a review of all mandatory programs; and assist in identifying cuts in mandatory spending as offsets for the restoration of any budget authority that reduced due to lack of authorization.

Finally, the SAC “establishes a schedule of three-year reauthorization cycles for all discretionary programs. The first cycle will begin after the implementation of the authorization schedule, when all discretionary programs will have been authorized or sunset.”  The sequester schedule would remain in effect “in perpetuity,” but it could be overridden.  During any year where programs are unauthorized, the SAC would be required to report mandatory cuts equal to the total amount of the discretionary sequester.  If Congress did not enact the recommended spending cuts, the sequester would remain.

It has been said before, but the point bears repeating:  Current House rules provide all the parameters necessary for members of Congress to do the right thing; however, by repeatedly waiving them to avoid tough fiscal decisions, these rules have become the exceptions.  Elected officials have demonstrated that, left to their own devices, they are incapable of any real fiscal discipline.  While the only “miracle cure” for fiscal insolvency is for Congress to utilize a simple prophylaxis (i.e., not to authorize government expenditures that exceed revenues), the USA Act is a potential antidote to this profligacy affliction.

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