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Legislation would shut down low-performing federal agencies

Federal agencies would have to justify their existence or face a possible shutdown under a bill debated on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

The bill would establish a bipartisan, 12-member committee to periodically review federal agencies and give each one an expiration or "sunset" date. The commission would recommend that Congress shut down agencies that are unable to justify their existence by the sunset deadline.

"In a time of tough financial choices, our hard-earned tax dollars can no longer be wasted on duplicative and outdated programs in our federal agencies," Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, who introduced the "Federal Sunset Act of 2001" (H.R. 2373), said Tuesday before a House subcommittee.

Under the bill, Brady said, agencies would become more "responsive to the American taxpayers, more oriented to customer service and [would] write regulations much closer to the original intent of congressional legislation. They must, because under Sunset there are no more sacred cows," he said.

Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, joined Brady in pitching the bill to members of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Civil Service, Census and Agency Reorganization. Both lawmakers served in the Texas legislature, which passed a similar law in 1977. Nearly 50 agencies have been abolished in Texas since the law was passed. According to Turner, the shutdowns have saved the state more than $700 million.

"We owe it to the taxpayer to make sure that his or her money is not wasted," Turner said. "We should eliminate outdated and unnecessary bureaucracy and we should improve, streamline and consolidate the programs we have in place now, rather than just create new ones."

President Bush proposed a similar measure in his management agenda earlier this year, Office of Management and Budget Controller Mark Everson said.

"There is much common ground between the president's proposal for a Sunset Review Board and the Sunset Commission in the legislation," Everson told lawmakers. "It is time to take a systemic approach to analyzing government performance and making tough decisions about what goes and what remains."

Witnesses from two advocacy groups, Citizens Against Government Waste and the National Taxpayers Union, and a scholar from the Cato Institute all voiced their approval to the bill.

"Government agencies are the only organizations in society that can have immortality without good performance," said Chris Edwards, Cato's director of fiscal policy. "At a minimum, a new federal sunset commission could help uncover serious management lapses at agencies before they explode into crises."

The proposal was also well received by Subcommittee Chairman Dave Weldon, R- Fla., who cited several instances of federal programs where the legislation may prove useful.

"For example, 70 different federal programs in 57 different departments and offices fight our 'war on drugs' at a cost of $16 billion a year," Weldon said.

Only Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., whose congressional district is heavily populated by federal employees, opposed the bill. Morella pointed out how similar legislation in Florida led to the creation of more agencies rather than reducing bureaucracy, and asked whether the creation of a sunset commission would make federal employees feel as if they had to "cowtow" to its members.

"Employees know that they have people's ears when Sunset comes along," Turner said in reply to Morella. "Government employees have been some of our best rousts to root out the problems."

According to Weldon, Justice Department officials have questioned the constitutionality of the bill, saying it gives too much power to the legislative branch. Everson said the bill should be revised to allow the president to determine the commission's members.