Federal government spends $332B on 'zombie programs' never reauthorized by Congress

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The federal government spends more than $332 billion on expired programs that Congress never reauthorized.

That includes autopilot money for programs like the Appalachian Regional Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Legal Services Corporation and the United States Institute of Peace.

A total of 1,046 federal programs have expired but have continued to operate on autopilot without reauthorization from Congress, costing $332 billion, according to a Congressional Budget Office report from 2020.

These expired programs came from 272 separate laws. That’s an increase from 971 programs in 2019 at a cost of $306 billion measured by the CBO.  

And it’s not limited to obscure programs.

The FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were not authorized by Congress since 2009, Politico reported.

Perhaps the biggest on the list – the State Department — wasn’t authorized since 2003. Congress last authorized the National Weather Service in 1993 and authorized the Federal Trade Commission in 1998. The Federal Election Commission’s authorization expired in 1981.

“If Congress is not exercising its oversight authority, we will have more waste fraud and abuse. Maybe the expired programs are not wasteful, but how would we know if Congress isn’t doing its job?” Jonathan Bydlak, director of governance at the R Street Institute, told Fox News. “An entire program may not be wasteful, but a function within that department might be. We don’t know because Congress doesn’t have a process in place to evaluate its relevance.”

Unauthorized programs – often called “zombie programs” – make up about 30% of federal discretionary spending, according to Americans for Tax Reform. Some were last authorized by the 95th Congress in 1977. This comes as the United States faces a $23 trillion debt.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., proposed the Unauthorized Spending Accountability (USA) Act to both rein in deficit spending and reclaim Congress’ power of the purse.

“We have a fiscal crisis in America today. Too much of the federal government is on autopilot, and it’s up to Congress to address it,” Rodgers said in a statement. “The USA Act is simple — it makes sure that every penny of taxpayer money is subject to the scrutiny of the American people who are footing the bill. It means effectively reviewing, rethinking, and possibly eliminating programs that are no longer needed. It’s time for Congress to restore the power of the purse and end unauthorized spending.”

Rodgers’ bill would pressure Congress to engage in oversight of spending by gradually sunsetting funding for unauthorized government programs over three years if Congress doesn’t act.

In the first year, an unauthorized program’s budget would decrease to 90% of its previous allocation. In the second year, it would decrease to 85% of the previous budget, and then sunset entirely in the third year, unless Congress moves to reauthorize the expired program.

To prevent such authorization from becoming a burdensome distraction as Congress deals with other matters, the bill would also establish a “spending accountability commission” to set up authorization schedules for all discretionary spending programs and recommend areas to cut spending. Rodgers has offered a version of the bill since 2016.

“There has previously been bipartisan buy-in. Some on the right have seen this as fiscally responsible. Some on the left have seen it as a way to find the money for other programs,” Michael Lambert, a federal policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity, told Fox News. “Some members of Congress would just like to claw back some of the authority they ceded to the executive branch.”

The last year should offer lessons on budget reforms, Lambert added.

“Before the past year, when we had economic growth, some didn’t seem to think there was a real reason to tackle wasteful spending,” Lambert said. “Then, the pandemic came, and government spending exploded. The cost made clear that if Congress wants to keep the lights on during an emergency and avoid just printing money and raising taxes, they need to prepare before an emergency begins. Fiscal responsibility provides flexibility to be more nimble.”

The way the government gets to $23 trillion in debt is by adding a bunch of little items at a time, noted Bydlak, of the R Street Institute. The problem in passing the USA Act, he said, is that many in Congress would prefer to take fewer votes on the federal budget that would make them accountable to voters.

“Arguably, a majority of members of Congress would love to see the government run entirely on autopilot. Congress has abdicated so much authority to the executive,” Bydlak said. “With fewer policies in the legislative process, members of Congress will have less accountability for outcomes.”

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