Sunset on waste

Congress has an opportunity this election year to demonstrate that it does indeed want to do something more about government waste than merely talk about it. So-called "sunset" legislation under consideration in both houses would force lawmakers to shift their focus from always enacting new legislation to reviewing the thousands of federal programs already on the books.

Weeding out overlapping, duplicative, and wasteful programs has never been very high on Congress's list of favorite things to do. Therefore, the kind of law that is needed must, first, set up a reasonable timetable for Congress to find out how programs enacted in the past are working; second, provide for an automatic termination date for existing programs unless Congress takes positive action to renew them. The advantage of such a mandatory review goes beyond the elimination of waste; it would force the lawmakers to weigh how well long-established programs are working and to consider possible alternatives for those found to be deficient.

The sunset bill that was cleared by the Senate's Government Affairs Committee this week, after surviving attempts by some senior members to weaken its key provisions, represents by and large the kind of measured, constructive approach that is called for. It would require a review of every federal program once a decade. Unlike the much weaker views to congressional committees. As Rep. Thomas Foley of Washington, himself a committee chairman, points out, "Almost every committee is a biased, special-interest committee, and there are programs they want to protect from review of Congress."

Missing from both the House and Senate bills, however, is a much needed provision to include so-called "tax expenditures" in the spending programs reviewed. These tax deductions and credits form the fastest-growing part of the federal budget and are expected to reach $199 billion by 1983. Such a major drain on revenues ought not to escape periodic review.

In recent years, nearly two-thirds of the state legislatures in the US have recognized the need for routine oversight of existing laws and have responded by enacting a variety of fashion federal legislation, it should be alert to at least two lessons gleaned from how sunset laws have worked at the state level:

1) Failure to limit the number of programs to be reviewed in a given period to what a legislature can realistically handle has produced difficulties in some states. In the Senate, some veteran lawmakers warn that even a once-a-decade review of every program could consume as much as 60 percent of Congress's time. It might well be argued that time so spent is hardly wasted, particularly in a period when national economic problems demand that Washington hold down spending. Still, it will be important to find the proper balance that allows time enough for review of past efforts as well as careful deliberation of laws to meet new problems as they arise.

2) Failure to mandate specific schedules for automatic review and termination of existing programs has made some state sunset laws largely ineffectual. Left to their own discretion and timing, lawmakers are virtually invited to choose the "easier" or less controlversial programs for review and leave pet projects untouched.

These are pitfalls Congress should be able to avoid -- if the lawmakers are as serious as they would have Americans believe they are about letting the sun set on government waste.

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