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Zickar: Time to Reconsider a Sunset Commission

“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” — Warren Buffett

“The American people are slow to wrath, but when their wrath is once kindled, it burns like a consuming flame.” — Theodore Roosevelt

[IMGCAP(1)]One of the first things they teach you in business school is the concept of the value proposition. Simply stated, value proposition is the benefit a consumer receives from purchasing a good or service. Value proposition has always been a key component of any business. But in tough economic times, the concept has become even more important.

With budgets tight, people are justifying their every purchase. Companies that have weathered the recession have recognized this and have adjusted their strategy accordingly. The Target Corp. is a good example. Ten years ago, ads for the chain of stores were famous for featuring the company logo and little else. Once the economy began to slow, Target changed its approach. The logo was still there. But it was now accompanied by four words that not only resonated with people who were being squeezed financially, but conveyed the company’s value proposition as well: “Expect More, Pay Less.”

With the country emerging from the recession, people’s pocketbooks are loosening and their shopping habits are beginning to change. But one thing hasn’t changed. People remain unsettled — around 60 percent say America is headed in the wrong direction. People are also angry. Much of this anger is directed at Washington. There are many theories as to why that is. Those on the right believe it’s because the government is spending too much. Those on the left believe it’s because the government is doing too little.

But perhaps there is another dynamic at work. It is a dynamic that has less to do with the size and scope of government than with its value proposition. Call it the reverse Target effect. Instead of expecting more and paying less, Americans feel just the opposite is true when it comes to the tax dollars they send to Washington and the return they get from the federal government.

In 2010, the average American household will pay $18,276 in federal taxes, according to the Heritage Foundation. Increasingly, people are asking what that money is buying them. The reason for this question should be obvious to anyone who has observed American government in recent years. Our federal bureaucracy appears incapable of doing the job taxpayers expect it to do.

The disaster playing out in the Gulf of Mexico is the latest in a string of failures. As New York University professor Paul Light wrote in the Washington Post shortly after the attempted bombing of a jet last Dec. 25: “The systemic failures that led to the attempted bombing … are, sadly, all too familiar. Substitute the words ‘Christmas Day plot’ for tainted meat, poisoned peppers, aircraft groundings, the Columbia shuttle accident, Hurricane Katrina, counterfeit Heparin, toxic toys, the banking collapse, Bernie Madoff or even September 11, and the failure to put Umar Farouk Abdulmutallub on the ‘no-fly’ list becomes yet another indication that the federal government can no longer guarantee the faithful execution of our laws.”

But it is more than government dysfunction that has people upset. It is the fact that neither party has seemed willing to set aside their ideology to make government work. Republicans have seemed intent on labeling anyone who supports a federal program as a socialist, while Democrats have used the 16 months they have controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue not to reform government, but to dramatically expand its reach. Given the empty rhetoric and broken promises, it is not only understandable that people are angry, it is a wonder that it took them so long to get upset.

In response to this anger, both parties have taken steps to address what CNN, in a series earlier this year, called “Broken Government.” On the Democratic side, outgoing Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag announced plans to improve federal efficiency by modernizing the way technology is used. On the Republican side, the GOP launched an online effort called “America Speaking Out,” which encourages people to share their ideas on making government work. Both efforts are commendable. But they will be meaningless unless specific measures are implemented to improve federal performance and hold government accountable.

In 1978, Congress came close to doing that when it considered a bill to establish a federal Sunset Commission. Under this proposal, any new program would essentially have been given an expiration date of 10 years. When the expiration date was reached, a nonpartisan review commission would have assessed whether the program was still performing the function it was originally intended to do. If the answer was no, the program would have been abolished. If the answer was yes, the program would have been reauthorized for another decade, at which time it would have been reviewed again.

The Sunset bill had bipartisan support and was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate by a vote of 87-1. The bill’s supporters ranged from Republican Sens. Barry Goldwater (Ariz.) and Jesse Helms (N.C.) to Democratic Sens. George McGovern (S.D.) and Edward Kennedy (Mass.).

“I regard the sunset concept as one of the most imaginative and innovative approaches to government reform that has been proposed in many years,” Kennedy said at the time. President Jimmy Carter said he would sign the bill if it reached his desk. Unfortunately, it never did. The bill died in the House and was never voted on again.

Yet the idea of establishing a Sunset Commission remains salient on Capitol Hill, and legislation to do just that has been introduced in both the House and Senate. The bills don’t have the broad support they did 32 years ago. But it is time for the idea to be considered again. The American people are tired of rhetoric and promises. They want action.

Establishing a Sunset Commission would not solve every problem facing the federal government. But it would help make the bureaucracy more accountable and send a message to people that, after years of dysfunction, an attempt is being made to put their tax dollars to better use.

In the private sector, such a message would be called a value proposition. In Washington, it is simply long overdue.

Lou Zickar is the editor of the Ripon Forum, a journal of political opinion published by the Ripon Society.

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