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Proposal on “Unauthorized” Spending Would Do More Harm Than Good

House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips recently denounced Congress for “unauthorized spending.”  But, in their September 1 Washington Post op-ed, their description of the issue is misleading and their solution would likely mean even more budget brinkmanship and gridlock.  It could also force automatic cuts in high-priority areas like veterans’ health care, law enforcement, and medical research.

McMorris Rodgers and Phillips claim that Congress appropriates hundreds of billions of dollars each year for programs whose legal authority has expired, citing a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) catalog of programs with expired “authorization of appropriations.”  In reality, as our recent paper explains, in the vast majority of cases the underlying law creating and governing the program remains in effect.  All that’s expired is the few sentences in those laws specifically authorizing Congress to appropriate funds (often in specific amounts) for particular years. 

Congressional rules don’t require these “authorization of appropriations” clauses.  But if Congress includes them, any appropriations after they expire are considered “unauthorized,” technically violating House rules.

Many “unauthorized” activities are major, longstanding agencies and programs that Congress almost certainly doesn’t intend to shut down.  The three biggest items in the CBO catalog, for example, are medical care for veterans, the National Institutes of Health, and Justice Department law enforcement agencies like the FBI and the federal prison system. 

Nor does Congress allow these programs to “run on autopilot,” as McMorris Rodgers and Phillips charge.  In enacting appropriations legislation each year, Congress reviews all appropriated programs, decides which to continue and at what funding levels, and sometimes adjusts their rules and activities.  In addition, Congress often revises the underlying law governing a given program.  It has repeatedly done so with veterans’ health care in recent years, for example — partly in response to excessive waiting times at some veterans’ hospitals.  But it hasn’t renewed the law’s authorization of appropriations, which expired 18 years ago. 

McMorris Rodgers has introduced a bill that would impose an automatic 10 percent cut on “unauthorized” programs, growing in later years, apparently to encourage Congress to renew the authorization of appropriations language.  This would further encumber a process already beset by long delays.  Congress already can’t enact basic annual appropriations in a timely manner; requiring it also to update authorizations language to avoid automatic cuts would create more “must pass” measures that members could use as leverage to force action on unrelated issues and that could lead to more impasses.

Renewal of language authorizing funding levels is a spurious indicator of whether Congress is adequately scrutinizing a program.  But if Congress nonetheless believes it’s an important tool for oversight, the most straightforward approach would be for its leaders to simply place a higher priority on enacting those measures, without resorting to elaborate new devices to try to force itself to act.