Why Is the Government Spending $310 Billion on ‘Unauthorized’ Programs?
Washington Mysteries

Why Is the Government Spending $310 Billion on ‘Unauthorized’ Programs?

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The federal government is on pace to spend around $310 billion in 2016 on programs that have expired, according to a new analysis by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

The 166-page annual report, titled “Unauthorized Appropriations and Expiring Authorizations,” looks at all programs and entities funded through the annual appropriations process that at one time had an explicit authorization from Congress through any number of hundreds of various laws that have since expired.

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The $310 billion is an increase from the $294 billion CBO identified 2015. The uptick can be attributed to a number of factors, including the funding for the Homeland Security Department not being available at the time CBO performed its last audit. (The agency’s money was held up for roughly three months by the GOP-controlled House to protest President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.)

Of the House authorizing committees -- which essentially provide blueprints for appropriations panels whose legislation has the rule of law and which earmarked money for efforts with expired authorizations -- the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved the most, with $61 billion going toward what basically amount to zombie programs. The VA received the same dollar amount from Senate authorizers.

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But when Senate Appropriations Committee settled down to hammer out the 12 individual spending bills, the Labor, HHS, Education and Related Agencies subpanels set aside the most, $65 billion, for government programs that had expired authorizations.

Senate Budget Committee chair Mike Enzi (R-WY) called CBO’s report “alarming,” noting that it “indicates that most non-defense discretionary spending is currently being awarded to expired programs.”

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"Congress should reexamine what we are actually funding in order to improve or eliminate government programs not delivering results,” he said Friday in a statement.

Taking a closer look at the programs and entities could bear fruit as the Republican Congress looks to have its budget blueprint in place by the end of February, well ahead of previous years, thanks to presidential election which has greatly abbreviated the congressional calendar.

Hard-right conservatives have already signaled they don’t like the spending limits set by the two-year budget deal Obama signed into law last month and want the ceiling lowered; cutting off funding for programs that are supposed to have expired could provide a way to reach some kind of solution and avoid a nasty intra-party fight.

Meanwhile, about $611 billion in authorizations are due to expire by the end of fiscal 2016, according to CBO. Most of the amount, about $600 billion, is authorized in a single law, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2016.

The massive bill serves as a budget policy roadmap for all Defense Department personnel, including troop pay and pricey weapons efforts.

Other authorizations set to expire at the end of 2016 include a 2015 bill that provided $1 billion for veterans programs and the 2016 Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2016, which authorized less than $1 billion for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.