Panel debates competing bills to 'sunset' federal programs

Critics say unelected members of review commissions could eliminate programs without public input.

Legislators debated two competing bills on Wednesday that would create commissions to evaluate government programs and advise Congress on whether they should be continued.

The House Government Reform Committee heard testimony from Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., sponsor of the Government Efficiency Act (H.R. 5766), and from Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, sponsor of the Abolishment of Obsolete Agencies and Federal Sunset Act (H.R. 3282).

The two bills differ in specifics but share provisions to create commissions that would assess federal programs and agencies. Critics charge that the measures aim to supersede congressional oversight and gut social programs.

Tiahrt's bill would authorize the creation of multiple ad hoc commissions either by Congress or the president, each with a one-year mandate to evaluate specified federal programs and agencies and make recommendations for reorganization, expansion or abolishment. A commission would consist of seven members appointed by the president, with some bipartisan congressional input. Resulting legislative proposals would be fast-tracked in Congress with limited debate.

Brady's bill would create just one standing commission composed of 12 people, eight of them members of Congress, selected by the majority leadership with consent of the minority. The commission would review each agency at least once every 12 years, and make a recommendation on whether it should be reauthorized or abolished. If Congress failed to act on that recommendation, an agency would be abolished after one to three years elapsed time.

Sponsors of the bills presented them as tackling waste, fraud and abuse in federal programs. In describing his bill, Tiahrt said review commissions would reduce duplication in government programs, end the institutionalization of those no longer needed and ensure the assessment of programs Congress has insufficient time to oversee properly.

In describing his bill, Brady said that sunset commissions in 24 states operate similarly to reduce state spending, with the Texas commission returning $36 in savings for every dollar spent on the commission. Responding to queries about similar previous legislation that included exemptions for certain educational, environmental and civil rights programs, he said amendments would be presented that would include those provisions.

Speaking against the proposed legislation, James Horney, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, described the proposals as unlikely to achieve their efficiency goals and highly susceptible to politicization.

"I believe that the only way that real improvements in organization and efficiency will be achieved is through careful consideration of the enormous amount of information available about the operations of federal programs and a real effort to come up with recommended changes that can garner widespread bipartisan support among the public and Congress," he said.

Horney predicted that both commission structures would be subject to political polarization, and he questioned how important programs like Medicare would be sustained if their parent agencies were abolished.

Charles Loveless, director of legislation for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, highlighted the lack of opportunities for public input in the Tiahrt bill, and said Brady's sunset provisions would significantly amplify the president's power in deciding whether agencies should be reauthorized.

Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., described the measures as "the outsourcing of the work of Congress" and suggested sunset commissions be called "midnight commissions" because their unelected members would work in the dark to cut programs without public input.

Robert White, a spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said the two bills are scheduled for markup Thursday morning. Tiahrt has indicated that he expects his bill to obtain committee support and be brought to the House floor before the end of the month; White said the prospects for both bills would be clearer after the markup. Davis, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, is a listed co-sponsor on both measures.