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White House Wants ‘Sunset’ Panel

In an effort to curb what it calls wasteful spending by Congress, the White House is pursuing the creation of a commission that would regularly review the soundness of federal programs and possibly send some down a path to elimination.

Under the White House proposal, Congress would set a schedule for every federal program to be evaluated. The commission — chosen by the president and Congressional leaders — would then conduct reviews on that timetable, eventually recommending that a given program either continue as is, be altered or be phased out entirely.

Programs that the commission wants to “sunset” would end unless Congress affirmatively acted to reauthorize them.

Such a commission was first floated as part of budget-process reform during the Clinton administration, and it enjoys pockets of support on Capitol Hill.

It is seen now as one way to compensate for a sharp decline in oversight and authorizations on Capitol Hill in recent years — a drop-off that keeps lawmakers from reconsidering budget choices they have made previously.

But the plan, which would give the administration a tacit role in Congressional oversight — and, presumptively, remove some authority from chairmen — could face difficulties in gaining wide Congressional support.

“I think that’s something the committees should do,” said Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.), a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee.

Shaw said he regards sunsetting as a valuable tool, and he acknowledged that authorizations have tailed off while Congress has become more consumed by budgeting.

But, he added, “It’s our responsibility” to evaluate programs and determine whether some may have outlived their usefulness.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said the authorizing and spending committees all tend to be territorial about their oversight.

“Any [commission] proposal would have to meet those concerns,” said the spokesman, Bob Stevenson.

An annual Congressional Budget Office review released in mid-January found that in fiscal 2005, Congress appropriated more than $170 billion for programs and activities whose spending authorizations had expired. That means that Congress spent the money even though there had been no review of whether it was being spent wisely.

The largest such payment — totaling roughly $27.9 billion — went to veterans medical care.

The commission proposal was included in the “management agenda” unveiled last week by Clay Johnson, the deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“The focus is all about making [programs] work,” Johnson said in an interview Monday. “It’s our habit to believe that every program should get better every year.”

Johnson also revealed a proposal to create “results commissions” intended specifically to improve the performance of federal programs.

He described these as ad-hoc panels of experts brought in to consider ways to streamline programs that are administered by several different agencies or overseen by numerous Congressional committees.

Johnson suggested that Members of Congress might appreciate the work of the commissions, because of the political benefits they could enjoy from highlighting the money saved by taxpayers.

He acknowledged, however, that Members sometimes consider programs to be valuable less for their effectiveness than for their usefulness as chits in the legislative process.

Asked what steps might be followed when outmoded programs enjoy powerful patronage on the Hill, Johnson said: “We’ll have to have a good, healthy debate on it all, and then see where we come out on it.”

Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he is not familiar with the concept of a “sunset commission.” But he added, “I’ve got an open mind about anything they recommend. We’ll look at it when it comes up.”

In its report, the CBO calculated that an additional $526 billion is hung up in authorizations that will expire before Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year. Most of that amount — about $446 billion — is tied up in one single law: the Ronald W. Reagan National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2005.

John Scofield, a spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, said the commission idea attracted support when it emerged during the Clinton administration.

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