The game begins every February. The president unveils a budget plan that recommends killing a certain number of federal programs. Advocates for the programs raise bloody hell, promoting the programs' strengths and challenging the administration's arguments about the perceived weaknesses. And in almost every case, Congress backs the programs and gives them money to operate another year. Then the cycle starts anew the following February.
In recent years, programs like Gear Up, Perkins Loans and Upward Bound, one of the TRIO programs for low-income students, have shown up annually on the Bush administration's hit list. (President Clinton had his own list, which contained some of the same programs.) All have survived, though often with scars.
As aggravating as that process can be for college lobbyists and other supporters of those and other programs, many of them believe that an approach under consideration in Congress would be far worse. Conservative Republicans seeking to rein in federal spending have offered multiple proposals to create "sunset commissions" that would recommend, and in some cases decide, which federal programs deserve to live or die.
Sponsors of the measures say the proposals would impose greater scrutiny on duplicative or obsolete programs and potentially wasteful federal spending, but critics, including some college groups, say programs already receive such scrutiny, and that the new approach would put too much power in the hands of the panels -- which under at least one of the proposals would be made up of unelected officials and would operate largely behind closed doors.
"That basically takes the responsibility for evaluating programs out of the light of day of Congress and puts it into the closet of a sunset commission," says Lisa M. Maatz, director of public policy and government relations at the American Association of University Women, which sent a letter opposing the sunset bills Wednesday to members of the House of Representatives, which was scheduled to begin consideration of the bills yesterday. "Many of the education and job training programs that our members care about could be eliminated."
Facing opposition from many Democrats and moderate Republicans, the House on Wednesday postponed action on one of the bills, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), until September. The other, sponsored by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), could be voted on by the full House as early as today.
Although the measures have the same basic objective -- "to abolish obsolete federal programs, eliminate duplication and hold federal agenc[ies] accountable to taxpayers,” as Brady describes his legislation -- the measures would take somewhat differing approaches in getting there. Brady's bill, the Abolishment of Obsolete Agencies and Federal Sunset Act of 2005 (H.R. 3282) is considered to be the more aggressive. It would effectively call for the elimination of every federal program every 12 years unless Congress went out of its way to formally renew the program. (Although Congress is supposed to review and extend every federal program, it often doesn't, yet the programs linger.)
"Every agency is held equally accountable and must regularly prove to taxpayers that it deserves our precious tax dollars today," Brady said in a news release when the House Government Reform Committee approved his measure last week. "The days where federal programs live to eternity whether they are needed or not will be over.”
Under Tiahrt's measure, the Government Efficiency Act (H.R. 5766), no programs would automatically sunset. Instead, the president would have the power to independently create a panel of seven members, all of whom he (or she) would appoint, to review a set of programs of the president's choosing. The panel would then examine the effectiveness of the programs, and within a year would recommend whether the programs should stay or go, and then the president would have 30 days to submit legislation to Congress seeking to kill some or all of those programs. Congress would then have to vote on the resulting legislation with little debate and without any amendment. (By the time it reaches the House floor today, Tiahrt's measure could look significantly different, as moderate Republicans were trying to reshape it to change the makeup of the panels and the lack of public hearings, among other things.)
Neal P. McCluskey, a policy analyst for the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom, which advocates limiting government's role in all levels of education, said legislation like Brady's would "force advocates of a program that's going to use taxpayer money to justify its existence" and "add one more hurdle that spending would have to go over to remain."
"It's much better that the onus always be put on the people who want the program to have to keep going through the political work to maintain it," McCluskey said.
But in a letter this week to members of Congress, nearly 300 groups, including the American Council on Education, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and the National Association for College Admission Counseling, expressed their opposition to both pieces of legislation. "Sunset Commission leglsiation, while touted as a tool for good government, would do nothing to improve the workings of our federal government," the groups said.
A sunset commission would duplicate the work Congress already engages in in its appropriations process, "make decisions behind closed doors," make it too easy for Congress to "eliminate important and beneficial programs," and "shift the responsibilities of authorizing, reauthorizing and funding the federal government from an elected Congress to an unelected and unaccountable commission," giving too much power to the executive branch.