You can’t avoid death and taxes. Unless you’re a government agency, in which case, you gain immortality from other peoples’ tax dollars. More than 3,500 new regulations from 60 or so agencies hit the books every year, but almost none are repealed. There are hundreds more agencies that don’t issue regulations, but run spending programs and give subsidies to private businesses. This problem has many possible solutions. It is well past time to try at least one of them: automatic sunsets for new regulations.
Just as every carton of milk has an expiration date, sunset provisions automatically end agencies, programs, and regulations after a fixed period of time, unless specifically reauthorized by Congress. We already know the idea works. Several states already have sunset laws in place. They typically establish a sunset committee or commission, which reviews programs and agencies whose time is almost up and makes recommendations to the legislature. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that Texas saves $42 for every dollar it spends on sunset reviews.
Governments lack the same incentives to be frugal that the private sector has. When something new and better comes along on the free market, it doesn’t take long for the old and worse to disappear—when is the last time you saw a pager? But government doesn’t work that way. Government doesn’t make profits, which encourage innovation and risk-taking. It also doesn’t incur losses, which keep that risk-taking to reasonable levels. It has no way to put an accurate price on the value its programs, services, and regulations create.
That’s why programs like the Rural Electrification Administration, created in the 1930s to bring electricity to rural areas, still exist. It’s been through a name change or two—it is now called the Rural Utilities Service—but its services are no longer needed, and eliminating it would save $1.8 billion over five years. There are dozens more of this kind of obsolete program. Do we still need the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, nearly 70 years after the end of World War II?
The case for regulatory sunsets practically makes itself.
Back in 1997, the Heritage Foundation published a top ten list of obsolete programs, including the Rural Electrification Administration. Fifteen years later, all 10 are still around.
It isn’t just Jurassic-era programs like those that need reevaluation. The Transportation Security Administration, created in 2002, is a laughingstock among security experts, some of whom have been known to print fake boarding passes and sneak into secure areas for fun. A decade of failure is long enough, and public opinion sourly concurs. Congress should de-nationalize airport security. A sunset law would make the process less politically painful.
A federal sunset law would be difficult to implement since a lot of vested interests will fight very hard to keep their nests feathered, such as the politically connected companies that make the TSA’s ineffective full-body scanners. Enacting a sunset law could well require serious restructuring of congressional procedure. As the Cato Institute’s Chris Edwards notes, one way to create enough time for lawmakers to consider sunset commission recommendations would be to move to a two-year budget cycle with alternate years devoted to sunset commission proposals for reform and termination.
But it could be a huge step in deflating our bloated federal government. Given that a new Gallup poll puts Congress’ approval rating at a record-low 10 percent, some serious restructuring might actually be in incumbents’ best interest. Whether Congress takes it up for the right or wrong reasons is irrelevant. Results matter more than intentions, and an automatic sunset law would deliver results.