Congress is good at making promises and enacting laws not so good at weeding out government programs that are wasteful or no longer needed or, just as bad, those that don't work but continue year after to create a drain on the federal budget. With President Carter pledging to hold the federal deficit to around $ 16 billion next year as part of a renewed attack on inflation, one important way Congress could help restrain federal spending is to enact pending "sunset" legislation that would force some discipline on the lawmakers.
Under a sunset law, Congress would be required to make periodic reviews of existing programs and agencies to evaluate their effectiveness. The most stringent proposals call for programs to be terminated automatically unless Congress specifically renews them.
Most congressional committees, suscepttible to special-interest lobbying, currently provide at best only hit-or-miss reviews of spending programs. And some openly resist reviews of pet programs. For instance, Representative Thomas Foley, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, warned in hearings on sunset legislation that "the tobacco subcommittee is not going to vote any opportunity for anybody to review the tobacco (price support) program."
Thus it is essential that a sunset bill provide for a coordinated, mandatory review of all programs. It should not be left up to each committee to decide what programs are to be reevaluated, as one sunset proposal before the House would do. It is essential, too, that tax expenditures -- or benefits that help a particular industry or class of citizens -- be included. Tax expenditures are the fastest growing part of the federal budget and are expected by 1982 to account for $215 billion annually in lost government revenue.
Public opinion polls indicate widespread support for a federal sunset law. In the last four years, 34 states have enacted similar legislation providing for reviews of regulatory agencies and licensing boards in particular. Common Cause , the citizens lobby, points out that permanent congressional authorizations, those that require no review at all, claim more than 50 percent of the federal budget. Inadequate oversight of such vast amounts of spending is a luxury that Congress and the American taxpayer can no longer afford. It is high time to let the sun set on such laxity.