Sunset bills are offered, effect of them unclear
In their Pledge to America, Republicans made bold promises to cut government spending and bring down the deficit.
One way to do that: impose a "sunset” date on any spending authorization, so it's not allowed to continue in perpetuity.
"Once created, federal programs almost never go away, even if the problem they were created to address is no longer relevant. More than 20 states have addressed this problem by requiring that programs end – or ‘sunset' – by a date certain. We will adopt this requirement at the federal level to force Congress to determine if a program is worthy of continued taxpayer support,” the pledge states.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, whose office is in charge of setting the floor agenda, has since incorporated that language into the "Legislative Protocols for the 112th Congress” posted on his website.
The protocol says, "Any bill or joint resolution authorizing discretionary appropriations or providing new or continued direct spending or establishing or continuing an agency, office or program shall also include a provision sunsetting such authorization, direct spending, agency, office, or program not later than seven years after the first fiscal year spending is authorized or provided under the bill or joint resolution. With respect to discretionary spending, a sunset may take the form of setting a date after which no funds are authorized to be appropriated.”
That language fulfills the pledge to put end dates on spending, but Cantor's protocols are non-binding. As his website says, they are "intended to guide the Majority Leadership in the scheduling and consideration of legislation on the House floor.”
Cantor's office pointed us to several examples of legislation incorporating this rule.
The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 authorizes programs and appropriations for the Federal Aviation Administration through fiscal year 2015. That bill became law on Feb. 14, 2012. The Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, governing patent law, sets a seven-year limit on any fees.
Other bills cited by Cantor's office passed the House but have not passed the Senate. The Food and Drug Administration Reform Act of 2012 "terminates ... the authority of the Secretary (of the Department of Health and Human Services) to assess and collect prescription drug user fees on October 1, 2017.” Similar deadlines are placed on programs for medical devices and generic drugs. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2012, or DATA Act, authorizes appropriations only through Fiscal Year 2019.
It's worth noting that most spending authorization bills have historically had sunset dates, so that practice is not new to this Congress. Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, told PolitiFact that this GOP pledge was primarily about ensuring that programs and projects sunset, rather than authorization legislation. He questioned whether much has changed on the program front, though: "There just isn't that much legislation.”
We can find several examples of bills with sunset dates -- some that have become law, some that have not. The real effect of sticking to this pledge however, is less clear. In that light, we rate this a Compromise.
MajorityLeader.gov, "Legislative Protocols for the 112th Congress,” accessed Nov. 12, 2012
Email interview with Megan Whittemore, press secretary for Eric Cantor, Nov. 5, 2012
THOMAS, Food and Drug Administration Reform Act of 2012, introduced May 9, 2012
THOMAS, Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, introduced March 30, 2011
THOMAS, A bill to provide for the establishment of the Special Envoy to Promote Religious Freedom of Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia, introduced Jan. 25, 2011
THOMAS, Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2012, introduced June 13, 2011
THOMAS, FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, introduced Feb. 11, 2011
Email interview with Steve Ellis, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Nov. 15, 2012