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Congress Should Improve Measures of Performance

Is Congress doing its job? If it were, surely it would know how the programs it funds are performing. However, given the Congressional Budget Office’s estimation that $170 billion was spent in unauthorized appropriations for fiscal 2005 alone, Congress clearly is failing to exercise its oversight responsibility effectively.

For example, this year, more than $18 million was appropriated for the benefit of an international fund supporting the Anglo-Irish peace agreement of 1985. The act was last authorized in 1988, and Congress appears not to have looked at it since. More recent examples of unauthorized expenditures for 2005 include appropriations of $27.9 billion for veterans’ medical care, $20 billion to the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act and $14.9 billion to the tenant-based housing assistance program.

These programs are designed to deliver benefits to the public, but does Congress measure their ability to deliver on their promises? Are the programs being required to perform at a level which demonstrates that they deserve funding? Isn’t it time for Congress to ensure that its appropriations are directed to programs that actually deliver desired outcomes instead of providing a lifeline to activities that achieve no results?

Congress also should realize what is left on the negotiating table. What are the options available, and are legislators considering the possible public benefit forgone when they choose one program over another?

Thankfully, a means to enable Congress to make these evaluations is on the horizon. The president recently sent legislation to Congress, aptly named the Government Reorganization and Program Performance Improvement Act, which calls for appointing two types of investigative bodies to examine federal departments, agencies and programs and report findings to lawmakers.

The first, called a Results Commission, would be charged with evaluating government programs based on performance, with an eye toward improving weak performance and ensuring that multiple programs addressing the same problem are realigned.

The second, which has generated heated debate, is the Sunset Commission. Sunset Commissions would be formed to look at federal departments and agencies every 10 years, recommending changes to heighten the effectiveness and performance of each.

The concern that’s been raised is this: If Congress, based on the information provided by the commission, failed to vote to retain a certain department or agency, funding for it would cease. Additionally, each would have an automatic expiration date if Congress did not reauthorize it.

There are a number of reasons why this system is promising. One is that some federal agencies, just like the multinational corporations of several decades ago, have grown into conglomerate businesses, involved in every aspect of federal governance. This is similar to the problems that were faced by the private sector. Simply put, conglomerates are not always successful at delivering 1,000 products as they were at delivering their initial 10. The expanse of their activity results in a lack of focus and accountability.

The private sector has restructured to get back to its core business, and the same needs to happen in the public sector. It is time for government agencies to be pulled back to those areas where they have a natural advantage, where their skills and talents are best used, and where they can effectively focus on their core duties. The implementation of a Results Commission and a Sunset Commission would provide a medium for this natural restructuring among government agencies to occur.

The two commissions also would prod Congress to consider issues it should consider anyway, thereby compelling legislators to reconsider the programs they establish and determine whether they are tightly focused on their core businesses or have spread out into conglomerates. The review process would enable Congress to deal with the backlog of reauthorizations, as lawmakers target activities more specifically and energetically to answer key questions:

• What outcome is sought?

• Does the current organizational format encourage innovation in achieving this outcome?

• Would restructuring allow greater creativity and even risk taking to produce better public benefits?

• When will this problem be eliminated?

This system is needed, urgently. As Comptroller General David Walker has often warned, we are on an “unsustainable fiscal path.” The performance-based budgeting required by this bill must be implemented because we simply cannot afford to continue spending at the current rate.

Defunding ineffective programs does not mean that the public loses. It means the same money can be redirected to programs that are delivering, and it means more benefits accrue at no additional cost to taxpayers.

Recent hearings conducted by Congress, including several at which I have testified, indicate that Congress is feeling the pressure. As former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has noted, “people expect results, not just excuses. … Implementing policy effectively is ultimately as important as making the right policy.”

However, this process cannot end in mere discussion. The ball is rolling and has a chance to gain momentum with the president’s legislation. Congress must start making the comparisons necessary regarding program effectiveness. Budgeting for the greatest gains may involve tough choices, but making them will ultimately benefit all of us.

Maurice McTigue, director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University’s Government Accountability Projects, is a former New Zealand Cabinet minister, Parliament member and ambassador to Canada.