This piece on Sen. Paul’s (R-KY) Legislative Performance Review Act originally ran in March during the Tournament of Government Waste. In July, the Congressional Budget Office released a report identifying 1,035 authorizations of appropriations from 261 different expired laws. Unauthorized appropriations accounted for $318 billion of spending in Fiscal Year 2018. Most have been expired for at least 10 years, 56 have been expired since the 90’s and 23 have been dead since the 1980s.
In the most dominant performance of the first round of the Tournament of Government Waste – Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) entry “4th Down & Waste to Go” advanced to the second round with a whopping 71% of the vote. The entry highlights $130,000 in federal funds that were used to develop a digital down marker by an Alabama scoreboard manufacturing company. The company’s idea was to replace the standard mechanical one because it was “less visible in lower light, required operators to reach above their head, and could jam.” Auburn University used Economic Development Administration (EDA) funding to build a prototype and the scoreboard company now sells it as eDown – which is 15 times the cost of the old mechanical down marker. Senator Paul points out that the company already manufactured specialized mobile scoreboards and that they were already “well positioned to develop the eDown on their own.”
While the entry will live to see another day in our Tournament of Government Waste bracket – taxpayers want to know how similar projects do not receive federal funding again in the future. A potential solution for this particular project could be found from legislation sponsored by Senator Paul – the Legislative Performance Review Act of 2017. The eDown funding came from the Economic Development Administration (EDA) – which has not been reauthorized since 2008. Shockingly, Congress spends $310 billion annually to fund over one-thousand federal programs whose authorizations have expired.
To understand how this happens its first important to understand the difference between authorization and appropriations. Congress can pass legislation that authorizes funding for a new program – or reauthorize funding for an existing program. In addition to authorizing funding (in specific or indefinite amounts and time periods), the authorization also spells out the purpose for which subsequent appropriations may be spent. But an authorization does not mean the money will be provided. A separate appropriations bill actually provides the money for the program (when you hear about threats of a government shutdown – it is always the threat to block appropriations bills).
There is a quirk in the system that allows for Congressional laziness and leads to poor outcomes. Congress can still appropriate (i.e. fund) a program even if its authorization has expired, “as long as there is legislative history that shows that Congress intended for the program to continue (and not terminate), or ‘at least the absence of legislative history to the contrary.’” That is currently the case for the aforementioned $310 billion in annual spending on unauthorized programs. If programs are not reauthorized, that means they have not been updated and likely have not received adequate Congressional oversight to ensure the programs are working as originally intended and the taxpayers are getting the bang for their buck. They just keep getting the money.
Senator Paul’s Legislative Performance Review Act would stem the zombie program apocalypse by requiring Congress to regularly review programs in a few ways. The bill would limit the maximum time a bill can authorize a program to four years with limited exceptions – meaning more frequent reviews. The bill would also wind down the funding for programs whose authorizations have expired over a multi-year period – forcing Congress to pass a new bill if funding for the program is to continue. The bill would also try to stop the epidemic of program duplication by requiring Congress to explicitly state the problem they are trying to solve and why a new program is necessary prior to authorizing a new program. The bill would enact these restraints by implementing Congressional rules that would make it more difficult for Congress to bypass their own process.
Senator Paul makes a common-sense push for the legislation, stating: “I just want to exert the power of the purse, and that means spending must expire. I am all for renewing [some of] the spending, but let’s renew only the spending that makes sense.”
Congressional oversight is critical to better outcomes. Look no further than a program that expired a decade ago funding digital down marker signs. That should be Congress’ sign that it’s time to do better.