USA Act Targets Zombie Federal Programs | Citizens Against Government Waste

USA Act Targets Zombie Federal Programs

The WasteWatcher

Just as Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) was putting the final touches on the 2021 Congressional Pig Book, which was more timely than usual when it was released on April 14, soon after earmarks were resuscitated, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) was tackling another issue of concern to taxpayers when she introduced the Unauthorized Spending Accountability Act of 2021 (USA Act). 

After the agreement was reached between House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to bring back wasteful and abusive earmarks to the appropriations process and continue the spending spree in Washington, D.C., and CAGW made them both the March Porkers of the Month, the timing for reintroducing the USA Act could not be more appropriate.

The Constitution provides the “power of the purse” to Congress, enabling the authorization and appropriations process to provide funding for government programs.  However, for hundreds of programs and entire federal agencies, Congress has allowed the authorization to lapse, making them “zombies” that can only remain in business through the appropriations process. 

Each year, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) provides a detailed listing to Congress of expired and expiring authorizations and appropriations for the coming fiscal year.  While CBO is still compiling information on programs that were expiring or had expired for fiscal year (FY) 2021, the report for FY 2020 found “that 1,046 authorizations stemming from 272 laws expired before the beginning of fiscal year 2020.”  Of those expired authorizations, 70 percent specified annual funding totaling $169 billion when the authorizations were last in effect.  CBO further identified $332 billion in FY 2020 appropriations that were attributed to the expired authorizations, $233 billion for specified amounts and $99 billion for indefinite authorizations.

While some might argue that some of these programs are necessary, the lack of Congressional oversight over these zombie programs using a regular authorization process can lead to wasteful spending on programs that are simply floating on autopilot.  Rep. McMorris Rodgers’ legislation would take these programs off of autopilot and impose much-needed oversight by inserting sunset provisions on them to ensure transparency and accountability to taxpayers. 

CAGW was involved in the development and introduction of the USA Act when it was first introduced in 2016.  As noted in a March 28, 2016 blog post:

“The bill puts all unauthorized programs on the path to sunset after three years, subjecting them to a rolling sequester.  In the first year after a program’s authorization has expired, it would continue to receive funding at 90 percent of current appropriations.  In the second and third years, the program would be funded at 85 percent (a 15 percent sequestration), and if it is not reauthorized, the program would be sunset at the end of the third fiscal year after expiration, with no funding in the fourth year and beyond.

“The immediate impact of this legislation is that it would trigger the three-year path to sunset any program that is still unauthorized at the time the bill is enacted.  Moreover, it would require any future reauthorizations to include a sunset clause.  The intent is to capture any currently unauthorized programs, while preventing the funding of programs that will not have been authorized by Congress in the future.

“To accomplish these objectives, the bill would establish a bicameral Spending Accountability Commission (SAC), comprised of seven members from each chamber of Congress (four from the majority and three from the minority), with three ex-officio members serving in an advisory capacity:  The Comptroller General (who heads the GAO), the CBO director, and the director of the Congressional Research Service.  The SAC would create a three-year schedule for federal programs funded by discretionary spending.  If programs were reauthorized sooner than their scheduled expiration, then the new authorization would automatically reset the sunset date.  The SAC would be required to submit to Congress a sequester-and-sunset schedule for any unauthorized programs; afterward, the commission would conduct a comprehensive review of mandatory spending.  In the meantime, the sequester schedule becomes a durable (and permanent) mechanism to ensure that programs cannot exist without congressional authorization.

“Unauthorized programs are not just small, obscure programs.  Consider the State Department, which has not been reauthorized since 2003:  the lack of a regular authorization process facilitated the continuation of problematic policies, potentially contributing to tragedy at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in 2012.  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has not been reauthorized since 1996.  Paradoxically, the BLM restricts grazing rights to protect the Mojave Desert Tortoise, notwithstanding the role of the cattle’s manure as nutrients for the turtle, while granting waivers for solar energy projects that make the area too hot for the threatened species to survive.  Hopefully, restoration of commonsense oversight by Congress would put an end to such incoherent practices.  Without authorization since 2009, the Department of Justice has been unresponsive to congressional leaders, while more than $60 billion in Veterans Affairs programs have expired authorizations (some dating back to 1998).”

As noted by CCAGW President Tom Schatz, “The USA Act will compel authorizing committees to do their job more effectively and give taxpayers a much better idea of which programs are effective or essential, and which should be eliminated or pared back.”

It is past time that Congress eliminates the continuation of zombie programs in the federal government and do the work necessary to determine whether they should be continued, modified, consolidated, or terminated.  Just like the elimination of earmarks found in CAGW’s 2021 Congressional Pig Book, passage of the USA Act is critical in the effort to reduce wasteful spending in Washington.