The $461 Billion Government Reform Opportunity in the House Rules Package

After electing Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the House of Representatives moved to pass the House rules package for the 118th Congress. The measure shapes how the chamber will conduct its business over the next two years. Americans should be encouraged by an important change that will focus lawmakers’ attention on authorizing federal programs. 

Unlike the Senate, which is a standing body, the House of Representatives votes on its rules at the beginning of each Congress. This means that the majority party has an opportunity to change the chamber’s rules and procedures, making the rules package one of the most important measures the House passes. 

Last fall, Lincoln Network issued a report, “Modernizing the People’s House: Reform Proposals for the 118th Congress,” after consulting with a group of bipartisan experts on Congress. The report included recommendations for rules changes, administrative changes, protocols, and appropriations to improve the legislative branch’s capacity. One of our recommendations was to require House committees to develop a plan for addressing expired or expiring program authorizations that continue to receive appropriations: 

At the start of each Congress, as an opportunity to drive significant policy reforms, each committee should publish a list in their oversight report of expired or expiring executive branch authorizations within their jurisdiction. The collaboration between relevant authorizing and appropriations committees of jurisdiction should be encouraged in the development of plans to address these expired authorizations.

For background, the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 has required the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to annually report “all programs and activities funded for the current fiscal year for which the authorizations of appropriations have expired” and “all programs and activities for which the authorizations of appropriations expire during the fiscal year.”

CBO further explains that “some provisions of law authorize the Congress to provide funds through a future appropriation act to administer a program or function,” and these authorizations of appropriations “differ from other authorizations (sometimes called enabling or organic statutes) that create a federal agency, establish a federal program, prescribe a federal function, or provide for a particular federal obligation or expenditure within a program.”

In August, CBO “identified 1,118 authorizations of appropriations that expired before the beginning of fiscal year 2022 and 111 authorizations that are set to expire before the end of the fiscal year. CBO also found that $461 billion in appropriations for 2022 was associated with 422 expired authorizations of appropriations.” (For a committee-by-committee breakdown, see the below table from CBO.) Congress will have new data about appropriations for expired or expiring authorizations when CBO analyzes the $1.7 billion omnibus spending package that President Biden recently signed into law. 

CBO’s August analysis found that many of the expired authorizations have been lapsed for a long time: “[R]oughly 44 percent of expired authorizations identified for this report expired at least a decade ago; the oldest expired in 1980.” In other words, many of the programs that Congress is funding have outdated guidance as authorizing committees have neglected their responsibility to update appropriations levels. As a result, these programs have been running on autopilot, with Congress ignoring its responsibility to use its authorizing powers to conduct oversight and reform programs to reflect the nation’s current needs. 

With Republicans now leading the House of Representatives, lawmakers may soon refocus their attention on Congress’s responsibility to authorize federal programs. The rules package, which passed last night, amends the House’s standing rules to require committees to address expired or expiring authorizations in their plans for the Congress. The section-by-section analysis released with the earlier draft rules includes the following summary of the change (bold added for emphasis):  

Committee Authorization and Oversight Plans. Subsection (e) restores the requirement that each standing committee (except the Committees on Appropriations, Ethics, and Rules) vote to adopt an authorization and oversight plan, which must be submitted to the Committees on Oversight and Accountability and House Administration no later than March 1 of the first session of a Congress. The plan must include a list of unauthorized programs and agencies within the committee’s jurisdiction that have received funding in the prior fiscal year, or in the case of a permanent authorization, have not received a comprehensive review by the committee in the prior three Congresses. The subsection requires committees to describe each program or agency that is intended to be authorized in the current Congress or next Congress, and a description of oversight to support reauthorization in the current Congress. 

Committees are now required to focus their time and attention on exercising the legislative branch’s constitutional responsibility to use its authorizing power to conduct oversight and ensure that federal programs are operating effectively and meeting the nation’s current needs. This work will likely identify opportunities for significant taxpayer savings. 

This rule change follows the recent passage of the bipartisan Improving Government for America’s Taxpayers Act, which requires streamlined reporting from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office to tell Congress and its authorizing committees how long its priority recommendations have been open and what the federal government could save if Congress required agencies to implement them.

Together, these reforms have the potential to focus Congress’s attention on ensuring that the federal government is accountable to taxpayers. Committees have an obligation to conduct timely oversight of federal agencies and to ensure that federal programs that receive funding are up to date. Refocusing on executing this constitutional responsibility will improve governance and show that Congress can work effectively again. 

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