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COLUMN: Take Unauthorized Government Spending Off Autopilot

April 4, 2016
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

President Ronald Reagan once put it simply: “No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. So governments' programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth.” Sadly, Reagan’s comments on the lack of accountability for taxpayer dollars are no joke. Reagan points out the truth that the natural tendency of government is to grow, so it is up to the people and the people’s representatives in Congress to keep government accountable.

When a federal program is created, it operates under an authorization from Congress to perform its activities. Congress regularly sets expiration dates, or “sunsets” on these programs. These sunsets provide the opportunity for Congress to review programs’ performance, revise or modernize their purpose and as needed, eliminate a no-longer necessary function of the federal government. According a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office, over $300 billion worth of unauthorized programs continue to operate. 

While this kind of ‘government spending autopilot’ may be typical for the federal bureaucracy, it is unacceptable to many American taxpayers who are accountable for balancing their own checkbooks. Americans deserve transparency, and they deserve to have their say in how their government spends their tax dollars.

I have cosponsored a solution: H.R.4730, the Unauthorized Spending Accountability Act, or the USA Act, which would place every unauthorized program on a three-year pathway to ‘sunset,’ or end. Recently introduced by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), the USA Act requires Congress to either end or reauthorize programs that do not have current authorizations, enforcing this requirement through annual spending cuts for three years. In the first year without authorization, the program will face a 10% funding cut. In the second and third year, a 15% cut will be imposed. Then, at the end of the third year, the program will sunset and future funding will not be allowed without Congressional action.

The USA Act would also form the “Spending and Accountability Commission to conduct comprehensive reviews of all federal programs funded through mandatory spending, such as entitlements, and provide legislative proposals for spending reductions. The commission will be made up of representatives of both Houses of Congress, the Comptroller General of the U.S., the Director of the Congressional Budget Office, and the Director of the Congressional Research Service.

Reviewing or even ending unauthorized programs could potentially save billions of taxpayer dollars and reduce the size of government. The USA Act would transform the status quo from perpetual funding for unauthorized government programs to restoring the rule of and by the people through their constitutional representatives.

Periodic review is necessary for every government program, and no program should continue to be funded without approval by Congress. The USA Act would ultimately keep government accountable to the people.

It is time to take government programs off autopilot. As Reagan said, no government will voluntarily shrink in size. I cosponsored the USA Act because no government program should live forever without the consent of the governed.