IT’S A GRAY AREA (5) August 12, 2007
“CONGRESS SHOULD PASS SUNSET LAWS”
What is one of the best ways to reduce taxes and still maintain appropriate services from the federal government? The answer is for Congress to pass sunset laws.
What does that mean? It means that legislation should be passed requiring every federal agency to get an affirmative vote from Congress every seven years or so authorizing its continued existence. And along the way Congress could audit, assess and provide direction for all of the agencies that continue to function.
Regardless of what one thinks about FDR’s programs in the 1930s, are you aware that many of the agencies established by the “New Deal” are still in existence today, if only under a different name? Whether they are contributing to the common good or not, their employees are still drawing their paychecks and we are still paying their expensive overhead. In addition to engrained institutions like the FDIC, FHA, SEC, National Labor Relations Board and the Social Security Administration, these surviving agencies also include the Rural Electrification Administration, Farm Security Administration, Tennessee Valley Authority, Agricultural Adjustment Administration, Farmer’s Home Administration, National Resources Planning Board, Federal Trade Zones Board, and Joint Stock Land Banks.
Maybe after 70 years in existence they should be re-examined! No private business would allow this situation to continue, but our government not only allows it, it thrives upon it. And this is not to our benefit, because as President Reagan once said, “Government does not solve problems, it subsidizes them.”
As a practical matter, what would happen if this legislation were to be passed? Every seven years each federal agency would be required to come forward and show what it has accomplished in the last few years and what its goals and plans are for the future. Then, for example, if an agency sets forth five main functions, Congress could analyze each one and see if it will likely be productive. If Congress finds that two of the five are producing positive results, those could be perpetuated and re-funded. But if the other three functions were not giving us enough “bang for our buck,” Congress could pare back or restructure the programs so that they would function more efficiently. Or some of those functions or even the entire agency itself could be abolished entirely!
Two features of this legislation would be critical for its success. First, each agency would have to be addressed and voted upon individually, because if it were to be addressed collectively it could more easily avoid scrutiny. That would also reduce the likelihood that individual members of Congress would work out deals that “if you vote not to abolish my favorite agency, I will vote not to abolish yours.”
Second, the congressional analysis and vote for each agency should be held as publicly as possible, with the hearings and votes being televised on C-SPAN or a similar station with “gavel to gavel” coverage. That would also reduce the ability of the members of Congress to play politics with the outcomes.
Today to my knowledge there is no provision in the law actually to abolish a federal agency – lots of ways to create them, but no way to terminate them. This legislation not only would change that reality, but it would also put the burden upon each agency itself publicly to justify its existence.
The benefits of this plan would not only be practical, they would also be institutional. Conceptually, we must decide whether it is the federal government that will tell us how we are to be governed and regulated, or it is “We the People” that control the government. There is no doubt about what Thomas Jefferson’s position was in this matter. Jefferson once wrote that he believed our country would be well served by a revolution every generation to keep our government fresh and responsive to the People’s will.
What Jefferson said can be analogized to the “default” key on today’s computers. After re-arranging the paragraphs on a word processor, it is possible to press the default key and move everything back to the way it was before the changes were made. In many ways, this plan would allow us to press the “default” key and regain control over our own government. Some people have sometimes declared victory by slowing down the growth of government, but this plan actually might reverse that growth!
As an aside, there is currently a bill that has been co-sponsored by 25 members of the U.S. Senate that would create the Commission on the Accountability and Review of Federal Agencies (Senate Bill 1155). If passed, this legislation would establish a commission to review domestic spending programs and agencies. Then two years from now the commission would recommend some elimination or reform where waste, fraud and abuse were found. In my view, this would not accomplish the institutional changes that would occur with the proposed sunset legislation, but it should nevertheless be supported.
If you are interested in pursuing these or any other changes in government, the place to start is to send a letter to your own elected member of Congress recommending that particular legislation be pursued. Do not bother sending letters to representatives you cannot vote for – those letters will not be considered and are not worth the stamp you put on them. But if you can vote for the elected officer, your letter will carry significant weight and almost certainly receive a response. And if you are a member of a group of people within that member’s district and your group sends a letter, you will be amazed at the weight your voices will carry!
In fact, now that I think about it, maybe this approach would even be effective with our state and local governments as well. Or maybe I am getting carried away. . . .
James P. Gray is a Judge of the Superior Court in Orange County, California and the composer of the high school musical “Americans All.”