The USA Act(s): A Tale of Two Spending Reform Bills | Citizens Against Government Waste

The USA Act(s): A Tale of Two Spending Reform Bills

The WasteWatcher

To borrow from (and bifurcate) one of Charles Dickens’ most famous sentences, the current governing environment might be described as “the worst of times … the age of foolishness … the epoch of incredulity … the winter of despair …”  Anyone who remembers the rest of the opening line from A Tale of Two Cities knows that Dickens painted a more balanced picture, referencing also “the best of times … the age of wisdom … the epoch of belief … the spring of hope …”  That upbeat effort notwithstanding, a cup half full does not accurately reflect the state of government spending today.

That is, until two refreshing tonics appeared on the drink menu, in the spirit of spending reform bills.  Coincidentally, both share the same moniker, the USA Act.  The first bill is the Unified Savings and Accountability (USA) Act, introduced as H.R. 3300, by Reps. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), and S. 1888, by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).  The second, introduced on Monday, March 14, 2016 by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), is H.R. 4730, the Unauthorized Spending Accountability (USA) Act.

The Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW) is proud to have actively participated in the drafting of both pieces of legislation.  In the case of the former (Unified Savings and Accountability), the bill sponsors seek the implementation of Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommendations, including those in the agency’s annual reports that identify fragmentation, overlap, duplication, and waste in the federal government.  CCAGW has long advocated the adoption of these recommendations.  If enacted, the legislation would save at least $50 billion over 10 years for taxpayers.

Title I of the bill includes provisions related to federal property, contracts, and information technology (IT), while Title II includes provisions in various other areas.  Highlights of the bill include:

(1)  Promoting federal contract competition to reduce expenses, resulting in billions of dollars in savings.

(2)  Promoting federal bulk buying to lower prices, which could yield up to $50 billion in savings.

(3)  Consolidating data centers across agencies for cost savings and efficiency, which is projected to save $5.3 billion, while strengthening oversight of (and avoiding duplication in) IT investments would yield even more savings.

(4)  Requiring the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and multiple agencies to take steps to better implement PortfolioStat, a process to help agencies manage their information technology investments, which could save $6 billion.

(5)  Increasing reverse auctions in government contracting, which could save another $1 billion.

(6)  Improving federal real property ownership and leasing, through federal real property management reform, which would help facilitate the disposal of unneeded federal property and establish a framework for federal agencies to better manage existing space in a more cost-effective manner.

(7)  Moving to a paperless Congress by requiring default delivery of official congressional documents to be electronic instead of paper.

(8)  Improving the ability of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to find and eliminate fraud, which would achieve $36 billion in savings.

(9)  Cancelling the passports of citizens who owe more than $50,000 in taxes, which would yield $500 million over five years.

(10)  Phasing out the $1 bill and replacing it with a $1 coin, which could save $4.4 billion over 30 years, as recommended by the GAO, consistent with eight previous reports.

(11)  Improving foreclosure mitigation efforts through additional data collection and analysis by the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Agriculture, as well as the Federal Housing Administration, which could save $176 million annually.

(12)  Requiring the Treasury to spend less than the face value of money when it is produced.

(13)  Enhancing online taxpayer services at the Internal Revenue Service, which could realize cost savings and increased revenues, while improving service and encouraging greater tax law compliance.

While the provisions of this USA Act are simple, the savings will be significant.  And these are considered the “low-hanging fruit,” the least controversial of many included in the GAO reports.  That said, even the least of these has one or more vociferous advocates on Capitol Hill.  But the line must be drawn somewhere.  These commonsense reforms and significant cost-saving opportunities will result in a better, more efficient government for all Americans.

Which leads to the other, more process-oriented, USA Act that CCAGW also supports.

The Unauthorized Spending Accountability Act of 2016 seeks to end the practice of appropriating funds for programs that are no longer authorized.  According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), in fiscal year (FY) 2016, Congress has 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 an alarming 30 percent of total discretionary spending.

According to Rep. McMorris Rodgers, “Programs and agencies should not receive taxpayer funding unless Congress has authorized them to do so.”  Through the benign neglect of congressional authorizers ceding their authority to congressional appropriators, almost half of non-defense discretionary spending continues, essentially on auto-pilot, without the rigorous oversight that taxpayers expect through the reauthorization process.

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 with the “low-hanging fruit” identified with the other USA Act, the unauthorized programs that would be targeted by this USA Act also have their champions.  But no program, agency, or department that is funded by taxpayer dollars should enjoy “blank check” status:  blindly appropriating funds to legacy programs administered by unelected bureaucrats, with little (if any) legislative oversight.  To the contrary, every federal entity should be required to “sing for its supper,” with every dollar subject to scrutiny.  Taxpayers (already feeling betrayed by an increasingly unrepresentative government, according to exit polls in recent presidential primaries) expect that the Congress should assert its constitutional prerogatives of the purse, as a counter to the overreach of a ravenous and often unaccountable executive branch.

The USA Acts would be an important step forward in restoring confidence in the country’s elected leaders, while providing welcome relief to overburdened taxpayers.