Congressional Inefficiency in a Nutshell
By Madeline Karon
February 17, 2016 | Blog
Here’s a startling figure: In 2016 alone, Congress is set to spend over $300 billion on programs with expired authorizations.
What does that mean? Essentially, Congress will be funding a wide range of agencies and services without adequately examining the current programs and how the money is spent. They are heavily relying on last-ditch appropriating methods that are inefficient and ultimately harmful to programs receiving funds.
Today, 260 programs have authorizations that are expired, and some of them, like the Department of State and the Federal Trade Commission, have been for decades. It is important to examine how the system has failed.
Running on autopilot for decades
Because the nuances of federal government budgeting are complex, let’s walk through an example: the National Weather Service (NWS).
When the NWS was created, legislators decided what the agency should do, what resources it would need, and drafted a two-year budget. Passing a bill to create the NWS did not automatically grant the organization funding, but simply authorized it to receive the money if Congress provided it.
For the money to enter the NWS’ account, the relevant appropriations committees needed to appropriate funds as a part of the larger budget. Once the appropriations committees passed the larger appropriation package, including the NWS’ proposals into the federal budget, the NWS can start spending.
Agencies’ authorizations expire as fixed by law, giving lawmakers opportunity to reevaluate goals, priorities and programming and to improve efficiency and budgeting. If the NWS’ authorization were to expire, the NWS would not necessarily shut down, since the program could begin receiving funding from the appropriation committee’s discretionary fund. Taking money out of this fund allows the agency to continue functioning on “autopilot” for that fiscal year, lacking the same oversight but still providing services.
Why Does This Matter?
In the certain irregular cases, the ability for agencies to function when expired is a good thing. But when it becomes the norm or the default, it’s a problem. The NWS has been operating with an expired authorization since 1993, meaning more than twenty years have passed since meaningful insight and examination were put into its performance and spending. For the last three years, Congress has continued to let more than 250 programs draw funding from discretionary funds instead of reevaluating their budgets and reauthorizing their programs and priorities.
These programs are neither cheap, insignificant, nor small. When programs like the State Department or Federal Elections Committee spend years running without authorizations, they are forced to rely on uncertain year-to-year accounts, making long-term planning difficult and disincentivizing cost-saving reforms.