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Sunsetting Federal Spending Programs Is A Fantastic Idea

Rick Scott
Image CreditYouTube/NBC News

Why do Americans have to live with legislative decisions made nearly 90 years ago?


When Joe Biden accused Republicans of planning to “cut” Social Security and Medicare during his State of the Union address, it was — like virtually all the other things he said — a lie. His claim was tantamount to accusing Democrats of supporting a “plan” to shut down air travel because Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez once proposed it.

The president was referring to Rick Scott’s ill-timed “12 Point Plan to Rescue America,” which included, among numerous other nonstarters, a proposal to sunset all federal spending programs every five years. The proposal, contra Biden’s contention, had no support from Republicans and nothing to do with the debt ceiling fight.

None of that means that asking Congress to reauthorize federal spending bills every few years isn’t a great idea. Why would stalwarts of “democracy” oppose revisiting spending decisions made by legislators nearly 90 years ago? No living person has ever voted on them. And though “liberals” are generally more protective of Social Security than the Bill of Rights, entitlement programs aren’t foundational governing ideas, they do not protect our natural rights, nor are they at the heart of the American project. Government dependency is, in fact, at odds with all of it.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of private-sector establishments go out of business, and yet not a single federal government program ever does. While nearly every facet of society embraces cost-saving efficiencies, the federal government perpetually grows. It is madness. Simply as a function of good governance, it would be reasonable for Congress to review the efficacy and cost of existing federal programs, and then make suggestions for reforms or elimination or — yikes — privatization. Forget entitlements. Is there any reason we shouldn’t revisit the billions spent on the obsolete Natural Resource Conservation Service (created in 1935 to help farmers deal with soil corrosion) or the Rural Electrification Administration (created in the same year, when large swaths of rural Americans did not have electricity) or the counterproductive Small Business Administration or the subsidy sucking Amtrak corporation?

Indeed, there is widespread support for Social Security — a Bismarckian import, first championed nationally by corrupt populists like Huey Long to augment retirement. One suspects this is largely because Americans have been compelled by the state to pay into the pyramid scheme. Many people build their retirements around the program. They have no choice. Compulsion is a hallmark of leftist policy, from entitlements to Obamacare to unionization to public school systems. And by forcing participation, we’ve created a generational trap. Voters have been fearmongered into believing that any reform means something is being stolen from them, when no serious proposal has ever cut existing benefits.

In the 1970s, Biden supported re-upping federal spending authorization every four years and requiring Congress to “make a detailed study of the program before renewing it.” Obviously, Biden hasn’t stuck to a single principled position in his entire career. But it is worth noting there was plenty of bipartisan support for sunsetting bills from 1970 through the 2000s — including from Ed Muskie, Jesse Helms, liberal “lion” Ted Kennedy, and George W. Bush.

Until very recently the center of both parties also agreed entitlement reform would be necessary to keep Medicare and Social Security solvent. In today’s Idiocracy, we have a president who argues that a $5 trillion spending bill costs “zero” dollars, so we’re about a zillion lightyears away from responsible governance.

If Social Security is so deeply popular — and everyone saw cowardly Republicans promise Biden they wouldn’t do anything to fix these programs that are bankrupting the country — what’s the problem? Even with the highly remote chance of a sunset law, the chances of reform would be still more remote. Look at how Washington almost perfunctorily lifts the debt ceiling. The only shared principle in D.C. is risk aversion.

Still, if Congress were automatically impelled to vote on existing law, it would create more political space to at least suggest changes and perhaps revisit mistakes. If nothing else, Congress would be marginally more “productive” if it was forced to occasionally deal with existing problems rather than concocting new ways to create them.

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