Congress' Derelict Committees
Senators John Thune and Bill Nelson — chairman and ranking Democrat, respectively, of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation — plan to introduce legislation reauthorizing the Federal Communications Commission soon.
That might not seem like a particularly noteworthy development. FCC oversight clearly falls under Commerce Committee jurisdiction, and Senate rules give the committee responsibility for authorizing the FCC's funding. Except when it comes to non-discretionary spending — such as funding for entitlement programs and interest on the federal debt — legislative committees are supposed to decide how federal programs will be financed each year. Then, appropriations committees are supposed to follow the authorizing committees' guidance when they allocate actual spending amounts.
Unfortunately, Senate rules are seldom scrupulously followed in this area. In fact, Thune's bill will mark the first time in a quarter-century that the Senate Commerce Committee has exercised its authorizing obligation for the FCC. Between 1991 and today, Senate and House appropriators alone decided how much money to provide the FCC and how the commission should spend those funds.
The FCC's current budget is roughly half a billion dollars. And for 25 years, the committee charged with the commission's oversight — whose members and staff have acquired the greatest expertise on the issues facing the agency — has had absolutely no input as to how the commission would be funded.
Commerce isn't the only committee that has failed to authorize federal agencies within its oversight. Some committees have been diligent, but others have, for all practical purposes, delegated their responsibilities to the appropriators. It has been 14 years since the Senate Foreign Relations Committee authorized funding for the State Department, leaving it to an appropriations subcommittee to determine which department operations to fund and at what levels.
The counterexample is the Senate Armed Services Committee, which has dutifully passed legislation every year authorizing funding for the military and influencing the scope and operations of our national defense. Many of the committee's members and professional staff have significant experience in defense issues. Many are veterans themselves and have had lengthy careers in national security. Their experience and knowledge serve not only as a check on the administration's power, but as the basis of a constructive collaboration between the executive and legislative branches in the paramount responsibility of the federal government — keeping Americans safe.
Authorizers and their staffs are best equipped to review a federal agency's performance and purposes, identify and eliminate wasteful or duplicative programs, and impose reforms to improve performance. Many recent reforms of Defense Department functions — weapons procurement reform, for example — were mandated in the defense authorization bill.
Appropriations committees are not equipped to handle such responsibilities. When appropriators are left to decide how programs are funded, the result too often has been earmarks and other forms of special treatment for programs that have an economic impact in an appropriator's district or state.
The defense authorization and appropriations process is a model of how Congress should, through its power of the purse, help determine the priorities and improve the efficiency of government agencies. To repair the broken federal budget process, recover fiscal discipline, and modernize government, all authorizing committees must reassume their responsibilities.
We applaud Thune and Nelson, as well as their co-sponsors, Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R.-N.H., and Maria Cantwell, D.-Wash. They deserve public commendation for their leadership of the Commerce Committee and for reasserting the committee's authority. We urge the chairs and ranking minority members of other legislative committees to follow their example.
Jon Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, and Joe Lieberman, a former U.S. senator from Connecticut, are co-chairs of No Labels.