Taking the Budget Off Into the Sunset -- Committee, That Is

On March 16, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) proposed an amendment to a bill reauthorizing two award programs offered by the Small Business Administration. It has not gotten much press, but it proposes serious, long-term changes to how Washington does business and places eight members of Congress in charge of the fate of all programs in the federal government.

Senator Cornyn wants to create what is referred to as a “sunset commission or committee”, which has the power to review federal agencies and programs for termination, transfer, or reduction. It would draw a list of programs to be considered every 10 years. 25% must come from the Congressional Budget Office's list of unauthorized and expiring programs. 25% must come from the Government Accountability Office's list of duplicative programs, and the other 50% of programs on the list would be at the panel's discretion.

OMB Watch, who posted a thoughtful analysis of the amendment, points out two especially pernicious issues with the proposal. First, the language of the amendment does not specify that it must be four Democrats and four Republicans on the commission. The Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader must choose four members, no more than two of which may be from the same party. This leaves open the possibility of choosing Independents who caucus with either party, thus stacking the commission ideologically.

The second issue is the way in which the commission's recommendations are enacted. All of the suggested terminations, transfers, and reductions would be sent to Congress in an omnibus bill, which would be fast-tracked through committee and be subject to limited debate. Should Congress fail to enact or amend this omnibus within two years, the recommendations automatically become law. OMB Watch is concerned that this hyper-partisan Congress would not be able to agree on which programs to change – potentially hundreds in one bill – and thus the democratic process would be subverted by argumentation.

Although there are no programs like this at the federal level, some states have had sunset reviews for some time. Texas, which Senator Cornyn represents, has had a Sunset Advisory Commission since 1977. Every state agency and program in Texas is up for renewal in 12-year intervals and this commission reviews their contribution to the state. However, this commission takes public input (which the federal version would not – its meetings would not even be required to be open to the public) and only makes recommendations to the legislature.

Other sunset committees are riddled with problems and become ripe field for political squabbling. The Delaware Joint Sunset Committee, another of long standing, is at a standstill because the Executive Director is claiming her office in the Capitol makes her ill and the Senate President Pro Tem will not let her work elsewhere. A local activist interviewed for the story suggests the refusal to accommodate the staff of the Committee is related to their review of the Gaming Control Board. In Ohio, the sunset review committee has been passed into law, but the legislature passed a bill postponing action on their recommendations for seven months to prevent them from automatically becoming law (like in the federal proposal).

The federal government is a large institution with hundreds of parts and pieces. When politicians want to make spending cuts without making difficult decisions, they pledge to remove fraud and waste. Nobody wants programs that are inefficient or duplicative, but concentrating resources on the hunt for these sources of waste ignores the larger picture of government spending. Senator Cornyn's proposal does little to address the mammoth, long-term budgetary challenges this country faces, including military spending and rising health care costs. States that have similar programs point out how flawed they are – the longest lasting among them have no power, and the legislature is able to pass laws to circumvent the automatic passage of the recommendations of committees that do have power.

Congress needs to go back to the drawing board, and soon.