May 5, 2006 – For social, environmental and regulatory programs in the federal government, the annual budget process may soon start to feel a lot like Judgment Day.
Under proposals by the Bush administration and some conservative lawmakers, programs ranging from scientific research projects to community-development block grants would be forced to justify their very existence before a White House-appointed panel, and those that donâ€™t make the grade could be fast-tracked for termination.
Each of two proposals under consideration in Congress would create an unelected commission to decide which federal programs or agencies are "effective" enough to keep alive. Recommendations to kill, maintain or alter programs would then be subject to a straight up-or-down vote by Congress; unapproved programs would automatically expire.
Public-interest groups have denounced the proposals for a so-called "sunset commission" as a way for the administration to quietly smother crucial protections and services for families, consumers and the environment.
"There are a lot of nonprofits that depend on federal funds, and they could turn around one morning and find out that the program had been put on the chopping block," said Robert Shull, a policy analyst with the public-interest group OMB Watch. "They had no way of knowing that it was on the chopping block, and no way to defend it."
Critics say the "sunset commission" would enable the administration to quietly smother crucial protections and services for families, consumers and the environment, while keeping the public in the dark.
The sunset commissionâ€™s main proponents are the White House and a conservative caucus of House members known as the Republican Study Committee (RSC). The White House plan, introduced by Representative Kevin Brady (R-Texas), would subject a wide range of agencies and programs to review every ten years by a seven-member panel.
The other proposal, introduced by RSC member Todd Tiahrt (R-Kansas), would create a twelve-member commission and set up a single, system-wide review of federal programs followed by the dissolution of the commission itself. Both proposals allow the president to appoint all members of the commission, though the Brady version requires that four seats be selected in consultation with Congress.
Tiahrt spokesperson Chuck Knapp said that funding decisions should be steered by sunset commission members rather than by legislators, since elected officialsâ€™ budget agendas might be tied to constituent interests. Establishing a separate review panel, he argued, would "take the politics as much as possible out of the process," and simplify program assessments into "one package thatâ€™s put forward by this commission for the good of the country."
But opponents say that appointees hand-picked by the White House would be no less vulnerable to special interests, particularly if the president tapped corporate lobbyists or other stakeholders for the slots. The commission would hold hearings and solicit public input only at its own discretion. Moreover, the Brady proposal would exempt appointees from the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which mandates public disclosure of the activities of executive branch commissions.
Congress would vote on the commissionâ€™s recommendations as a package in an expedited process, with minimal debate time and no opportunity for changes.
"Iâ€™m for having a good, efficient government," said Chris Murray, an attorney with the environmental organization Natural Resources Defense Counsel (NRDC), "but Iâ€™m not for having corruption and cronyism rule the day, [and] this creates a vehicle to do that."
The NRDC fears that if the proposed sunset commission mirrors the RSCâ€™s 2007 legislative agenda, many environmental programs could face muffled termination. The RSC has eyed over a dozen natural-resource-related programs for cost cutting, including international conservation programs and grants to improve local drinking-water and wastewater infrastructures.
The sunset commission could also further darken the prospects of struggling federal education programs.
Joel Ryan, director of government affairs with the National Head Start Association, predicted that a sunset commission would bolster efforts to de-fund the nationâ€™s flagship school-readiness initiative, which now faces a shortfall of about $234 million. Noting that the 41-year-old Head Start program would probably suffer even deeper cuts were it not for strong grassroots support, he told TNS the proposed commission would make it easier for lawmakers "to do away with programs that they know the public likes."
"Special-interest groups would have an opportunity to try to work behind the scenes," Ryan said, "[while] the average person probably doesnâ€™t even know that there are sunset commissions even being proposed."
Both the Tiahrt and Brady proposals set similar criteria for evaluating a program or agency, including its "cost effectiveness" and whether it duplicates other public or private-sector programs.
Public-interest groups say the sunset commission could undo hard-fought health and safety standards established through public pressure.
Both proposals contain some limits on the commissionâ€™s authority: The Tiahrt version would shield Department of Defense funding and entitlement programs like Medicaid. The Brady bill would make exceptions for health, safety, environmental and civil-rights protections and related enforcement measures. But OMB Watch points out that despite this caveat, the agencies charged with carrying out the protected regulations could still be gutted or weakened under restructuring plans.
Congress would vote on the commissionâ€™s recommendations as a package in an expedited process, with minimal debate time and no opportunity for changes. Once the recommendations are sent to the appropriate congressional committees, lawmakers would have only fifteen days under the Tiahrt bill and 75 days under the Brady bill to send the legislation for a floor vote.
A spokesperson with RSC Chair Mike Penceâ€™s office (R-Indiana) told TNS that House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has partnered with the RSC to push for a sunset commission in order to secure votes on the 2007 budget bill.
The move would appeal to conservatives seeking to curb spending through budget-process reforms. Pence and Tiahrtâ€™s offices told TNS that the House leadership is currently honing a final bill based on existing sunset-commission proposals.
The sunset commission model has been demonstrated previously on smaller scales in the forms of state-level initiatives and a controversial Department of Defense commission governing military-base closures. Yet critics say the current proposals would constitute an unprecedented codification of the Bush administrationâ€™s favored alternative to traditional congressional oversight: the Program Assessment and Rating Tool (PART), developed by the White House Office of Management and Budget in 2001.
Although Congress already has mechanisms for evaluating programs â€“ such as committee hearings and accountability and reporting mandates under the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 â€“ PART provides a separate one-size-fits-all criteria for rating government programs according to cost-effectiveness.
Since these ratings are intended to inform the administrationâ€™s budget-cut proposals, PART has drawn criticism for ignoring the public value of federal initiatives that are not easily reduced to dollar figures.
Laura MacCleery, deputy director of the Auto Safety Program with the consumer group Public Citizen, fears that the sunset commission could undo hard-fought health and safety standards established through public pressure.
Some safety provisions that consumers take for granted today, such as air-bag standards, have had to overcome years of resistance from the government and the industry lobby. Setting programs to expire by default, MacCleery argued, would force public-interest advocates and agencies to "rejustify advances that we have already begun to see the benefits of."
Wary that the sunset commission might not only scale back programs but also curtail the democratic process itself, MacCleery warned, "The more concentrated the power, the more likely it is to be exercised in a corrupt fashion."