Sunset law -- sounds good but isn't

The Senate will shortly consider and probably pass a strong sunset bill which would automatically terminate most federal programs after 10 years unless they were specifically reauthorized by Congress.

Despite a certain superficial appeal, this is a bad idea.

The argument for sunset legislation -- an argument which has prevailed in several states -- is that government agencies and programs tend to outlive their usefulness without anybody noticing. The sunset bill would ensure that if the programs continued beyond the preordained termination date, it would be only because Congress had looked at them again and found them good. The implication of the argument is that Congress would allow many programs to disappear.

This is highly questionable. In recent years, Congress has been moving to de facto sunset requirements anyway. That is, Congress has shown an increasing tendency to authorize programs for only a few years, sometimes only one year, at a time so that, as it is put on Capitol Hill, "we can take another look at it." But when they have taken another look, the almost invariable result has been to reauthorize and continue the program.

Foreign aid has never been authorized for more than one year at a time, but it has nonetheless become like the prewar British Empire -- the sun never sets on it.

One of the results of this increasing congressional tendency to authorize programs for only a year, or a few years, at a time is that an inordinate amount of congressional time is taken up every year with consideration of whether to renew and extend the programs in question. Despite the time consumed, the process tends to become increasingly perfunctory, to the detriment of the original purpose of the short-term authorization. There is no reason to suppose that the process would be any less perfunctory or automatic under the requirements of sunset legislation.

Indeed, by greatly enlarging the number of programs and agencies which would have to be reconsidered at intervals, sunset legislation would multiply the demands on congressional time.

And time is the scarcest resource on Capitol Hill. No member of Congress can conceivably do all the things he is supposed to do or would like to do. Every time he devotes his attention to topic A, he is deciding consciously or otherwise to neglect topics B, C, and D. Sunset legislation would make a good many of those decisions for him.

Or, worse, it would put the decisions in the hands of the growing bureaucracy of the congressional staff.

What Congress needs more than anything else to become more effective in managing the government is a scale of priorities. As things stand now, it is trying to do everything at once and not doing much well. The sunse t bill before the Senate does make a stab at establishing priorities, though its provision of a timetable for reviewing certain programs, but its net result would be to increase rather than to lighten or regularize the congressional workload.

Of course, Congress should review ongoing government programs from time to time and modify them to meet changing circumstances or even abolish them if they have outlived their usefulness. But the committees of Congress ought to decide in what years to review which programs; Congress ought not to legislate itself into a straitjacket controlling its own agenda.

One of the things wrong with the idea of sunset legislation is the notion implicit in it that legislation can force Congress to do something it ought to do anyway. Remembering how Carter's technique of zero-base budgeting was going to save money? Well, when Carter came to office the budget was $464 billion; after three years of zero-base budgeting, it is $613 billion. If sunset legislation operates the same way, it could more appropriately be called sunrise.

It would be good if Congress applied to itself the concept that less is better. It ought to accept the fact that it cannot do everything and try to do fewer things but do them well.

If in the two-year life span of a single Congress nothing were accomplished but sensible and comprehensive welfare reform, for example -- or tax reform or the enactment of an energy policy -- that Congress would go down in history as one of the most effective.

Presidents in general, and Carter in particular, tend to contribute to the congressional overload by sending Congress too many messages with too many requests for legislation. But Congress doesn't have to consider everything a president requests. And it certainly doesn't have to generate more work -- and more staff -- for itself, as would be the result of the sunset bill.

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