Legislating a sunset

Commissions would examine, even eliminate programs and agencies

The Bush administration took another step last week in its effort to transform the federal government when lawmakers introduced White House-crafted legislation that would create two commissions to examine the efficacy of programs and agencies and possibly eliminate them.

The Government Reorganization and Program Performance Improvement Act of 2005 would create a standing sunset commission, which would review all federal agencies and programs every 10 years and recommend changes. If lawmakers did not vote to continue a program, its funding, not just its authorization, would automatically cease.

The act would also allow Congress to approve a results commission proposed by the executive branch. Those commissions would recommend structural changes in particular policy areas, including proposing the reorganization of agencies.

The commissions are a needed remedy to Congress' heavy concentration on new programs, said Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.). "We rarely, if ever, take a look at programs to see how they're working," he said.

Thomas is sponsoring the legislation in the Senate. The House has split the proposal into separate bills — one focusing on the sunset commission, the other on the results commission.

"Every agency that succeeds ought to be able to justify its existence to taxpayers today," said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas). "There are no sacred cows — every agency must show that they are efficient."

Brady, who has pushed for a sunset commission for nearly a decade through House bills, is introducing the White House sunset bill while also reintroducing his own similar proposal. His sunset proposal cleared the House last year by a vote of 272-140.

Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.) is introducing the results commission bill with co-sponsors Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, and Brady.

The most significant difference between the Brady and White House bills is in the commission's composition. Under Brady's bill, it would be made up of members of Congress. Under the White House version, they would be political appointees.

Congressional sponsors stressed that both commissions under consideration would be bipartisan. The administration calls for seven-member groups for the sunset and results commissions, with two members appointed in consultation with the minority party in Congress. Congress' majority party would select two more. The president would choose the three remaining commissioners, so one political party would likely control five commission seats.

But the commission's recommendations would not break down along partisan lines, Davis said. The bill ensures that the minority party is involved in the process from the beginning, he said.

During his first term, President Bush sought — but did not get — presidential reorganization authority, which would have allowed the executive branch to propose reorganizing entire federal departments with expedited congressional review.

As a tool for reorganizing government, the commissions would be less sweeping, said Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget. Reorganization authority "is a much steeper hill to climb," he said. "It's much more focused to look at programs, to deal with very specific issues."

Democratic reaction to the proposals has been less than enthusiastic. Overlap exists, but "transferring most of the responsibility for executive reorganization" to the White House isn't the answer, said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking minority member of the House Government Reform Committee.

Texas takes artful approach

Experience with sunset commissions at the state level shows that few programs end up being canceled, Office of Management and Budget officials have said.

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission has abolished 47 agencies since its creation in 1977, said director Joey Longley. That amounts to about 20 percent of all reviewed agencies and about $800 million in savings. In most cases, the functions of those agencies were shifted elsewhere, he added.

A sunset review spurs agencies to correct inefficiencies — often before the commission starts requesting information, he said.

But there is no easy way to ensure that the commission accurately measures agency performance, Longley said.

"You have to use judgment, comparison and just institutional memory of best practices," he said. "It's not like auditing. There are no yellow book or red book standards that you can just check off. It's a little more creative. There's a little more art to it."

— David Perera

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