Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said: "These are not the kind of zombies we see on the ‘Walking Dead,’ or what we might see on our doorsteps tomorrow evening...these zombies are scarier."

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said: "These are not the kind of zombies we see on the ‘Walking Dead,’ or what we might see on our doorsteps tomorrow evening...these zombies are scarier." Carolyn Kaster / AP

Senate Panel Tackles Unauthorized Appropriations, or ‘Zombie Payments’

Unauthorized payments accounted for 23% of the discretionary budget in 2019, compared to 10% in the early 1990s.

The top Republican and Democrat on a Senate subcommittee on Wednesday expressed their willingness to work together to remedy the long-standing issue of unauthorized appropriations. 

A hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management took up unauthorized mandates, which are programs Congress created that have expired, yet still receive appropriations. Subcommittee Chairman Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ranking Member Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said they will work together on determining what type of “hammer” could be used to eliminate such payments—whether it’s a freeze, suspension or wind-down of programs.

The Congressional Budget Office identified in March unauthorized appropriations (often called “zombie programs”) for 257 laws and 971 expired programs in fiscal 2019, which totaled $307 billion. This accounts for about 23% of the discretionary budget, compared to 10% in the early 1990s. Some of the major sources of expired programs with appropriations in 2019 include millions of dollars for: veterans, violence against women, NASA and the 9/11 commission. “Americans would be shocked if they knew about this,” said witness James Thurber, American University professor and founder of the university’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.

There are also some “ridiculous” programs like “a clown college in Argentina, Brazilian welfare programs, and jumpstarting the Haitian film industry,” Paul stated. “These are not the kind of zombies we see on the ‘Walking Dead,’ or what we might see on our doorsteps tomorrow evening...these zombies are scarier.” 

The “Legislative Performance Review Act” (S. 1583), introduced by Paul, would require Congress to regularly review federal programs and “provide an orderly wind down of expired programs.” Paul said it's difficult for “robust oversight” to occur without authorizations. “Congress acts through passing laws, so oversight is anemic at best if there is no threat of legislative action,” he said.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, R-Wash., also has introduced legislation to address the issue. Her “Unauthorized Spending Accountability Act” (H.R. 2505), re-introduced in May, would put unauthorized programs on a pathway to sunset in three years if Congress doesn’t approve a continuation. During that time the programs would face budget reductions. 

Unauthorized appropriations are “part of the untold frustration that we often hear from the citizens, the hardworking taxpayers that we represent,” McMoris Rogers said. “Congress isn’t using its power to exercise its power of the purse to hold these programs accountable on a regular basis.” 

Hassan agreed that programs should be reviewed periodically. But she said she “disagree[s] with the premise that programs should automatically lapse or wind down if that does not happen, even when Congress agrees to fund them.” She said this “would do enormous harm to our constituents if programs to provide medical services to veterans or to combat violence against women ended.”

Nevertheless, Hassan and Paul expressed a willingness to work together.  “If there was something we could find agreement on to figure out how to force authorization, the details of my bill, I’m open to compromising,” Paul said. The subcommittee leaders already co-sponsored the “Duplication Scoring Act” (S. 2183) together in July, which would prevent duplication and overlap of existing federal programs in order to save taxpayer dollars.

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