A key driver of wasteful spending in Washington is what some call “zombie” appropriations.
This refers to spending on programs that either have never been authorized, or are operating under an expired authorization. According to the Congressional Budget Office, these programs accounted for nearly one-third of all discretionary spending in fiscal year 2016, receiving more than $310 billion.
Under both House and Senate rules, a program that does not have an up-to-date authorization is not supposed to be able to receive an appropriation. Unfortunately, these rules are almost always ignored, and “zombie” programs continue to receive funding.
Some may wonder, why does it matter if zombie programs continue to receive funding?
One of Congress’ core constitutional authorities is to maintain the power of the purse. Authorization legislation, budget resolutions, and appropriations bills (collectively known as regular order) are key components of Congress’ oversight function.
By authorizing agencies and programs on a regular basis, Congress is able to examine the activities that receive taxpayer dollars. This also allows Congress to consider the usefulness of government programs and make sometimes tough decisions about what the nation’s spending priorities should be. With the gross federal debt now approaching $20 trillion, it is clear that Congress has a spending problem.
Lack of oversight has at least in part contributed to this problem. Congress should be working toward reducing wasteful spending and finding ways to put spending and debt on a sustainable path.
Yet at the very least, it should perform its oversight function and fully account for exactly how scarce taxpayer resources are being spent.
This week, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., introduced the Unauthorized Spending Accountability (USA) Act of 2017.
Rodgers’ bill makes a strong push to begin the return to regular order, forcing Congress to do its job and regularly authorize agencies and programs. Under her USA Act, programs would be put on a three-year track to being sunset if they are not reauthorized.
The first year after their expiration, appropriations would be reduced by 10 percent of the total value of their unauthorized spending. In the remaining two years, this cut would deepen to 15 percent.
The Heritage Foundation’s “Blueprint for Balance” calls for a similar penalty to be applied to unauthorized accounts, but would withhold any funding until after reauthorization.
Spending reductions would be enforced by an automatic sequester each year, and the only way for Congress to avoid these reductions for unauthorized activities would be to enact offsetting reductions in mandatory spending.
Enforcement through sequestration gives Congress a strong incentive to either authorize programs or make targeted cuts to other parts of the budget and avoid arbitrary across-the-board cuts.
The USA Act would also create a commission to establish a three-year schedule by which all discretionary programs would be authorized. This commission would also review all mandatory spending programs and identify mandatory offsets that could be used to restore budget authority to unauthorized accounts.
Hopefully, the bill would also bolster Congress’ oversight ability and provide an opportunity to identify programs and activities that could be consolidated or eliminated entirely, saving taxpayers billions of dollars.
Zombie appropriations continue to be a major problem and threaten the nation’s fiscal health. It is going to require backbone and decisive action from Congress to stop this practice and return accountability to the budget process.
This bill is a first step in the right direction.