February 24, 2016

Unauthorized Appropriations Continue to Grow

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A recent article from Politico looked at the growth in unauthorized appropriations as a share of total discretionary spending. Each year the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) releases a report listing programs that have maintained funding despite their authorization expiring. The latest CBO report finds that “lawmakers appropriated about $310 billion for fiscal year 2016 for programs and activities whose authorizations of appropriations have expired.” That’s equal to about 26 percent of total appropriations.

I have recreated Politico’s chart, which shows that unauthorized appropriations have jumped from 8.3 percent of total appropriations in fiscal year 1987 to the aforementioned 26 percent in the current fiscal year.

Critics of the growth in unauthorized appropriations believe that this growth shows that Congress is failing to perform sufficient oversight, which is part of the authorizing process. According to the critics, because of the lack of oversight, programs in need of reform continue to exist on autopilot. Others believe that while unauthorized appropriations are an issue, concerns about insufficient oversight are overblown. For example, according to coverage on the topic from Congressional Quarterly (paywall), Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) believes that the lack of oversight doesn’t matter:

But Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., committing what she described as “heresy,” told the committee that the authorization process has effectively become a waste of time. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Ayotte said, she has spent countless hours each year working on the annual defense authorization bill, which is one of the few authorization measures to pass each year. But the Appropriations Committee ends up funding defense programs that the Armed Services Committee had never authorized, she said.

“They spend lots of money on things that were never authorized, were never supported,” Ayotte told the Budget Committee. “The two are totally disconnected. It’s unbelievable.” While endorsing the need for greater congressional scrutiny, Ayotte said, “This dual process is not doing a service to the American people in terms of oversight.”

Regardless of whether one believes that the growing volume of unauthorized appropriations is a real problem, it does appear to be emblematic of an overgrown federal government that is simply too large to manage.