‘Zombie’ Federal Programs That Congress Hasn’t Authorized in Years Cost Taxpayers $332 Billion

February 19, 2020 Updated: February 19, 2020

WASHINGTON—Hundreds of billions of federal tax dollars will be spent this year on programs with expired legislative authorizations — including thousands from a law passed in 1985 — according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), but Congress appears to be in no hurry to fix the problem.

The CBO report — which was made public recently by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) — found tax dollars will be spent in 2020 on at least 1,046 expired authorizations on programs under 272 laws approved by Congress and signed by the President.

“CBO has identified $332 billion in appropriations contained in 2020 appropriation legislation that can be attributed to those expired authorizations—$233 billion for those authorizations with specified amounts and $99 billion for indefinite authorizations,” the report said.

Congressional appropriations set program funds each year. Prior congressional authorizations define a program’s purpose and resources to achieve that purpose. Authorizations typically are for one to five years and must then be renewed.

The CBO was first ordered by Congress in the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 to prepare an annual report on unauthorized spending.

“It is time for Congress to take a close look at what we are actually funding,” Enzi said in a statement accompanying release of the CBO report.

“Lawmakers should review and authorize programs and activities before they fund them. This could help improve government programs that are not delivering results, including by reconsidering a program’s purpose and imposing some accountability,” Enzi said.

Spending Rules Ignored

The core problem, according to Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) President Tom Schatz, is Congress often ignores its own spending rules.

“It requires the authorizing committees to do their basic job to determine which programs should be allowed to continue and which ones need to be modified or consolidated or terminated, and they are not doing that job,” Schatz told The Epoch Times Wednesday.

“Whole departments haven’t been authorized, so technically they are not allowed to operate but what the appropriations committee does is it simply says, ‘we’re going to waive the fact they have to be authorized and allow the programs to keep going,’” Schatz explained.

“It doesn’t allow for much to be done to modernize or update anything, and that’s part of the reason why the executive branch takes control of a lot of things and tries to do things with regulations and guidance and everything else because they don’t get the proper instructions from Congress,” he said.

Heritage Senior Analyst Justin Bogie agreed, saying, “technically, Congress can’t appropriate funds to unauthorized programs. However, the rules that prohibit it are weak and almost always ignored. They are enforced through a budget point of order, which can easily be waived. This is often done in the rule for a House appropriations bill and a simple majority vote in the Senate.”

“When the budget process is ignored, it inevitably leads to the continuation of ineffective programs and wasteful spending, making taxpayers the real losers,” Bogie said.

Default to Continued Spending

As a result, continued spending on a program too easily becomes a default position for Congress, according to Elizabeth Hempowicz, Project on Government Oversight’s Director of Public Policy (POGO).

“The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) has not been authorized right now for years, but money continues to be appropriated to keep the agency running,” Hempowicz told The Epoch Times. The MSPB’s job is protecting merit-based hiring in the civil service.

“So, there’s this idea that authorizing statutes are optional now because in many ways Congress has slowed down to this trickle of legislation and most of them are spending bills. As long as they are appropriating, they can pat themselves on the back for doing their jobs,” she said.

The International Security and Development Cooperation Act of 1985 was the oldest of 15 laws, with 6,887 distinct unauthorized appropriations in the 2020 federal budget. Next was the Housing and Community Development Act of 1992, with more than 5,500.

Topping the CBO list was the Veterans Healthcare Eligibility Reform Act of 1996, with 82,586 distinct unauthorized appropriations, followed by the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998, with 31,293.

Taxpayers Protection Alliance President David Williams told The Epoch Times Congress should “defund any program that has lapsed authorization. And if there is a justification for a program with lapsed authorization, the agency needs to make the case to have it reauthorized and not just have the program on spending auto pilot.”

Enzi is not the only member of Congress concerned about tax dollars going to unauthorized programs. Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.) has repeatedly introduced legislation establishing a three-year timetable for either re-authorizing or ending programs.

“For too long, hundreds of billions of dollars of federal spending has been on autopilot. By eliminating unauthorized spending, we can ensure every dollar of taxpayer spending is properly reviewed by the people’s representatives in Congress,” McMorris-Rodgers told The Epoch Times.

“We have a fiscal crisis in America today, and I encourage the Democratic leadership in the House to advance my “Unauthorized Spending Accountability Act” so we can put an end to zombie government programs,” she said. No Democrats are co-sponsoring her bill.

Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) told The Epoch Times “the way to stop this from happening is to go through the budget-making process,” but “Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats were so busy trying to impeach Trump last year that they forgot to write a budget.”

Banks added that “my colleagues and I on the Republican Study Committee (RSC) introduced a budget last year—the only budget introduced in Congress in 2019—that would balance our budget in six years.”

Contact Mark Tapscott at Mark.Tapscott@epochtimes.nyc