- - Monday, July 11, 2016


Each year, Congress appropriates funds for programs that were never authorized or whose authorizations have long since lapsed. These “zombie programs” continue to operate with little to no oversight or evaluation and cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars annually for activities that in some cases have outlived their usefulness and original intent.

In its latest annual report on unauthorized and expiring appropriations, the Congressional Budget Office found that, for fiscal year 2016, Congress appropriated more than $310 billion to agencies and programs that had not been reauthorized and another $611 billion for programs that would expire by Sept. 30. These already large figures do not even take into account numerous programs that have never been authorized.

Many of the federal government’s best-known agencies have operated without authorizations for years. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have continued without reauthorization since 2009. The State Department was last authorized in 2003. The Federal Election Commission has been operating without an authorization for the past 35 years. NASA’s authorization lapsed in 2013, yet the agency received nearly $19 billion in funding this year.

The perpetual problem of zombie appropriations can be blamed in large part on the breakdown of regular order and the dysfunction within the appropriations process over the past few years. Under regular order, authorizing bills would be passed on schedule, the House and Senate would agree to a budget resolution, and both chambers would pass and conference 12 separate appropriations bills annually.

Earlier this year, House and Senate leadership pledged a return to regular order, but with a dwindling number of legislative days left before a long recess and the end of the fiscal year looming, the passage of a massive continuing resolution or omnibus spending bill looks inevitable.

Regardless of the breakdown in regular order, there are rules in place that are supposed to keep unauthorized programs from continuing each year. But, as so often is the case, Congress ignores their own rules in order to keep the money flowing and constituents happy. Both chambers have mechanisms to combat zombie appropriations, but the rules are rarely, if ever, applied.

By allowing authorizations to lapse and continuing to ignore regular order, Congress is neglecting one of its primary duties: oversight. Authorizations define the priorities of agencies and the activities that the government carries out to meet those priorities. Expiring authorizations give Congress an important opportunity to take a close look at programs and re-evaluate their missions so they can evolve with changing priorities and technology or cease to exist if they have outlived their purposes.

The appropriations process provides another opportunity to examine these programs and keeps Congress aware of their sizes and scopes, which should ensure that they do not turn into zombie programs — spending billions of dollars on autopilot.

Congress should stop providing appropriations to zombie agencies and programs immediately. By discontinuing funding for unauthorized activities, Congress has an incentive to reauthorize programs before they expire and to stop kicking the can further and further down the road. Right now, there is no penalty if Congress does not reauthorize a program. The threat of eliminating funding would force Congress to take action and perform its oversight duty on a regular basis.

Unless Congress takes immediate and decisive action to enforce its rules barring unauthorized appropriations, these zombie programs will continue and grow unchecked. Oversight is one of the major duties of members of Congress, and by failing to take action for or against authorizations, they are doing a disservice to the constituents they are elected to serve. With America creeping ever closer to a financial disaster caused by rising debt levels, the country can’t afford to waste any more money on zombie programs.

Justin Bogie is a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

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