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Zombie Spending That Just Won't Die

Congress is bad at running the country and keeping an eye on it because it keeps throwing good money after bad.

For example, spending on federal programs that have ended is on the rise. It has gone up by 6 percent since last year and by 77 percent since 2012.

The legislature is supposed to spend money in two steps: first, they get permission to spend money, and then they spend the money. But Congress isn't reauthorizing a growing number of programs that have run out of time. This makes it harder to keep an eye on things and leads to more questionable spending.

Only in 2022, Congress set aside $461 billion to pay for federal programs whose funding had run out. More than half of this money went to programs that were supposed to end more than 10 years ago. This is what a new report from the Congressional Budget Office says, which came out just a few days before the Labor Day holiday.

Some of the spending in this big group may be necessary, like spending on health care for veterans or on some State Department activities.

Other spending that isn't authorized is useless, wasteful, and against the Constitution.
  • Such as Head Start, a federal pre‐​school program that fails to consistently improve a range of outcomes for children.

  • Or the Childcare and Development Fund which does more harm than good with exposed children having “experienced lower math and reading scores and an increase in behavioral problems,” as highlighted by my colleagues Ryan Bourne and Vanessa Calder.

  • Or the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, a federal job training program that fails to measurably improve earnings among its target population. As my colleague Chris Edwards pointed out: “Federal job training programs have been known for their wastefulness since the New Deal when the word “boondoggle” was adopted to describe them.”

Like zombies, these programs just won’t die. Instead, they continue gobbling up taxpayer dollars and driving up the national debt.

Even though spending that isn't authorized doesn't always mean it's wrong or wasteful, it does mean that Congress has decided not to follow budget law. It's like a teenager who comes home from soccer practice and decides not to take a shower before bed. Sometimes you just don't feel like it, I guess. The end result is always the same: it stinks.

The whole point of making spending money from taxpayers a two-step process is to make it harder to spend money in a wasteful way. In theory, making people approve programs before they can get money for them should lead to more thought and debate. This process should lead to better results for taxpayers, such as restraint with money. Instead, because members of Congress skip the first part, we waste more money.

When approving new programs, it's a good idea for lawmakers to put an end date on them. As expiration dates get closer, lawmakers should compare what they wanted to happen with what actually happened and decide if it makes sense to keep some programs going or if it would be better to let them go. But this method only works if lawmakers use it the way it was meant to be used. Instead, Congress has gotten into the bad habit of not following the rules and giving money to "Zombie" programs that have already ended. Since the money for fiscal year 2022 runs out at the end of September, this bad habit is likely to happen again.

It comes down to not having enough self-control. A general unwillingness to have hard conversations and make decisions that could upset certain special interests by ending programs they benefit from. And the more Congress avoids doing its job of authorizing spending, the more expired spending that hasn't been approved piles up. Like a huge pile of dirty clothes that you never get around to doing anything about.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) is a strong supporter of bills that aim to stop unauthorized spending. The Unauthorized Spending Accountability Act (H.R.2056) is a step in the right direction. Even though Congress wastes money on a lot of programs that shouldn't exist, unauthorized appropriations are a good place to start.


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