Sunset Bitch

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Via Plastic comes this Rolling Stone scare-a-thon about "Bush's Most Radical Plan Yet," a dastardly gambit by which the prez would create a

"Sunset Commission," which would systematically review federal programs every ten years and decide whether they should be eliminated. Any programs that are not "producing results," in the eyes of the commission, would "automatically terminate unless the Congress took action to continue them."

Given that the article's author–Osha Gray Davidson–is apparently named after a federal agency (and a particularly useless one, I might add), I can understand the writer's disgruntlement. But for Christ's sake, how is this a bad idea? Government at all levels is littered with nosferatu agenicies, laws, and policies created to address some specific problem that long ago receded from electoral consciousness. And what's the threat anyway, since as Davidson points out, Congress can "take action to continue" the targeted agency?

Nobody loses here, with the exception of agencies that can't justify their existence anymore in the court of public and political opinion. Which sounds pretty fucking democratic in the best way possible. One objection, lobbed by living proof of the axiom that politics is show biz for ugly people, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), is even more risible:

"Under the administration's proposal, Congress would relinquish its constitutional power to legislate," says Rep. Henry Waxman…who has been the commission's most vocal opponent. "Power would be consolidated in the executive branch, and the legislative role would be emasculated."

Davidson notes that a bill that will supposedly be "introduced soon" would transfer the commish to Congress, thereby obviating that concern. But even if not, Congress would be in a position to revivify any dead agencies anyway, so the effect would be to create a pretty little turf battle between the two brances. Equally unconvincing is the implication that weakened federal regulation was somehow solely responsible for the Enron debacle (puh-leaze, Enron was heavily regulated and still managed to defraud its investors).

I'm no fan of the Bush administration–didn't vote for the guy and would vote against all of the Republican leadership given the chance. But Rolling Stone's vendetta against Bush and the GOP is as unseemly as its puffing out of Al Gore's crotch. The mag's party-line political coverage only makes the book that much lamer.

Whole article here.

NEXT: Paglia Don't Preach

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  1. Congress can kill and agency and program it feels like killing.

    What does it say that your best hope of phasing out programs is to create a mandate that they be reviewed, rather than allowing the question to come up or not as the public and their representatives see fit, and then give the power over that review to an unelected body?

    “Nobody loses here, with the exception of agencies that can’t justify their existence anymore in the court of public and political opinion.” Will the unelected body of presidential appointees actually be referred to as “the Court of Public Opinion?” Won’t that be a little confusing, separation of powers-wise? But then, avoiding separation of powers issues doesn’t seem to be a top priority.

    “Congress would be in a position to revivify any dead agencies anyway” Just as Congress is in a position to kill any agencies right now.

  2. What? Useless taxdollar-black-holes might be eliminated? But…But…then, who’ll regulate the out-of-control horse-and-buggy industry? And what about all those poor government saps who will be forced to justify their inflated paychecks with actual results? How are they gonna put food on the table?

    God, I can’t even read this tripe. Here’s a great laugher:

    “In practice, however, the commission would enable the Bush administration to achieve what Ronald Reagan only dreamed of: the end of government regulation as we know it.”

    Ho-lee-FUCK! That sentence is pathetically, rediculously wrong on so many levels. Where to begin: 1) Did Reagan actually want to end government regulation? Of course not. 2) Does Bush have the same dreams? Please, Bush has increased government spending more than anyone since LBJ…yet, they’re scared that he’s gonna start cutting the government? 3) As Gillespie notes, the provision would not allow the White House to singlehandedly start slashing agencies willy-nilly.

    My head continues to spin, in this crazy backwards universe, wherein the stupid GOP president and congress increase spending and the size of government unlike any president in decades, even more than their idol, Clin-ton; yet they still sit around and breathlessly bemoan the GOP’s desire to cut the government. What a bunch of fucking idiots.

    “Without many of those programs, however, American consumers, workers and investors would be left to the mercy of business.”

    God forbid. I jest LUV how the anti-capitalist forces don’t even have to qualify, justify, or even explain their drivel about eeeevil businesses. It’s almost as if it goes without saying that every last fucking company in the world exists for one simple reason: to screw over consumers…and that the only thing standing between civility and you getting ass-raped by evil CEO’s is the government beaurocracy.

    This stupid tripe gets worse and worse…thanks for reminding me to never buy a Rolling Stone (not that I needed reminding).

    “When you look at this,” says Marchant Wentworth, a lobbyist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, “it’s almost like the Reagan administration was a trial run.”

    Yes, true. The Reagan Administration increased the size and scope of the government. The Bush Administration has gone even further. But, um, oh, yeah, we should be quivering in our booties over the spectre of Bush cutting government.

    Holy shit. I have to stop. I tried reading on, but every single paragraph is such rediculous tripe, my head is going to explode.

  3. Congress is in a position to kill any agencies right now.

    Congress doesn’t have a history of acting responsibly. Anything that puts the breaks on their actions is automatically appealing. That said, this doesn’t pass my constitutional smell test. If you really want broad sunset provision, then this should be enacted via a constitutional amendment.

  4. Some ugly, real-world insight: this would probably result in millions of dollars of outside contracts (Republicans are rabid about outsourcing federal work, even though it is more expensive.. and it’s not like there is any crony pay-back going on), countless hours of work, and huge piles of documentation.

    And, after all is said and done, it would still take an act of God to kill a program.

  5. I knew Joe would have the first comment. If only picking the winner of the Derby was this easy.

  6. Leave Henry Waxman’s looks alone!! We can’t all be as dashing as Nick Gillespie. I happen to think Henry is hot, BTW.

  7. “One objection, lobbed by living proof of the axiom that politics is show biz for ugly people, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), is even more risible: ‘Under the administration’s proposal, Congress would relinquish its constitutional power to legislate….'”

    That’s not actually particularly risible. Allowing an executive agency to unilaterally terminate legislatively-authorized programs would be a mind-blowing violation of the separation of powers, even if it did reduce spending. The Supreme Court actually does take separation of powers seriously. Google “INS v. Chada”, “Clinton v. City of New York”, and “Bowsher v. Synar”.

    Read Justice Kennedy’s stirring defense of the separation of powers in the Clinton concurrence here: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/97-1374.ZC.html

  8. Right on, SR. Chadha is the first thing that popped into my mind when I read that proposal. No way it would pass the Supreme Court if that power were given to the executive.

  9. The driest deserts in the world (as measured by precipitation) lay in valleys in the central regions of Antarctica. In many places there has been no precipitation (in the form of snow or otherwise) measured for over 100 years. Yet the areas are covered with hundreds of meters of snow because each little snow flake that does fall never melts.

    Laws are like that. Without some sort of automatic sunset provision or review, laws and the government power they represent grows by simple accretion.

    We need a little built-in sunshine to melt the snow back every year so we don’t get crushed under the glaciers.

  10. Re: risible. I might not have been clear, but I find Waxman’s comment risible for two reasons: First, as described in the article, the commission would not have some sort of unilateral power to do anything. Second, and perhaps more on target, it seems that the GOP is planning to circumvent any possible objection by switching the authority to create and appoint the commish to Congress.

    It seems clear (to me, anyway) that the objection is to the very idea of sunsetting agencies; it’s not really about who does it, or about the constitutionality of anything. If it were, where are the Rolling Stone articles quoting Waxman on the super-elastic-bubble-plastic use of the Commerce Clause by Congress?

  11. “Does Bush have the same dreams? Please, Bush has increased government spending more than anyone since LBJ…yet, they’re scared that he’s gonna start cutting the government?”

    Bush has rolled back regulations and ramped up spending. While the two are contradictory according to your philosophy of governance, George Bush doesn’t share that philosophy.

  12. What’s wrong with the name Osha?

  13. Bush has rolled back regulations

    Maybe he has rolled back some regulations that you don’t like, but he certainly has not rolled them back in general (although this link is admitedly dated).

  14. Leave Henry Waxman’s looks alone!! We can’t all be as dashing as Nick Gillespie. I happen to think Henry is hot, BTW.

    So would it be safe to assume that you also think the Morlocks from the 1960 George Pal version of “The Time Machine” are hot, as well?

  15. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054387/

    Ignore the shitty one that came out a few years ago, and stick with the original.

  16. MP,

    Counting the pages in the Federal Register, or any other book of regulations, isn’t a good metric. In many cases, there is a one paragraph “Thou shalt not…” statement, followed by dozens of pages of exemptions. By CATO’s measure, adding to the exemptions counts as increasing regulation.

  17. “First, as described in the article, the commission would not have some sort of unilateral power to do anything.”

    As described in the article it sure sounds like it:

    “The proposal, spelled out in three short sentences, would give the president the power to appoint an eight-member panel called the “Sunset Commission,” which would systematically review federal programs every ten years and decide whether they should be eliminated. Any programs that are not ‘producing results,’ in the eyes of the commission, would ‘automatically terminate unless the Congress took action to continue them.'”

    I.e., an executive branch organ could terminate a legislatively-created program with no input from Congress. How is that not unilateral? (Of course the article could be wrong.)

  18. I should add that I’m all for smaller government; it’s just that based on how the “Sunset Commission” is described in the article I see SCOTUS nuking it off the map.

  19. when someone says OSHA is ‘particularly useless’, I can assume a few things about him:
    -he’s never loaded a truck on a deadline (I have; OSHA rules protected me from physically dangerous ‘speed-ups’ on the shipping line).
    -he’s never worked in a restaurant where health codes are enforced (I have; feel like taking chances with where the cook’s hands have been? If you really feel this way, I strongly urge you to eat off street carts in Lagos, Nigeria!)
    – he’s never worked in a machine shop where people used to routinely lose fingers in the bad old days (my grandfather did. He saw a man cut in half by an unshielded saw and he never forgot it. He kinda thought OSHA was a pretty good idea after that).
    I’m picturing your soft, delicate hands, you who probably think of gardening as hard work, you, sitting there in a comfy office….every time you say stuff like this, it makes working people vote Dem.
    so, thanks, jerky!

  20. “systematically review federal programs every ten years and decide whether they should be eliminated.”

    I thought the main policy that propels government is “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Other agencies apply it to specific situations as needed.

  21. Nick,

    Why do you hate America?

  22. Anyone who thinks it’s not a great idea to sunset laws (constitutionally, of course) should never again complain when someone gets arrested for something they think should not be completely legal.

    As for OSHA, perhaps regulation has lead to greater safety in the workplace and improvements for the workforce. But since the enforcement arm of OSHA is so ineffectual, I kind of doubt it. The overwhelming majority of what OSHA does is meaningless crap whose enforcement is (thankfully!) nearly non-existent.

    And all of the things in yhad’s list are things that could be negotiated by the employee – with or without a union. (Except for health codes – which usually aren’t enforced federally by OSHA but by state or city.)

  23. Why, yes! If it wasn’t for OSHA, all of our children would be working in the Temple of Doom. All hail OSHA!

    My favorite OSHA moment was when they felt the need to attempt to impose ergonomic requirements on home offices.

  24. Woops. First sentence should read: “Anyone who thinks it’s not a great idea to sunset laws (constitutionally, of course) should never again complain when someone gets arrested for something they think SHOULD be completely legal.”

  25. Dear “yup, he’s a dem,”

    Not that it’s particularly relevant, but in fact I have worked loading trucks, in restaurants, and in factories. As far as OSHA goes, one basic question is this: What has been its effect, other than raising compliance costs, on workplace accidents and fatalities? I direct you to the following analysis, which reads in part:

    Because the rate of workplace deaths has, in fact, fallen by about half since 1970, from 6.8 per 100,000 workers in 1970 to 3.5 per 100,000 workers in 1993, both Robert Reich, the secretary of labor, and Joseph Dear, the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, have credited OSHA with reducing workplace fatalities by 57 percent over that period. But that is misleading. Figure 2 shows no downward trend in either the total frequency of workplace injuries or the frequency of injuries resulting in at least one lost workday. Figure 1 shows that the workplace fatality rate began its downward trend well before the creation of OSHA. The trend was fueled in large part by improvements in safety technology and changes in the occupational distribution of labor. Specifically, the pre-OSHA drop in the frequency of workplace fatalities from 1947 to 1970 was 70 percent larger than the post-OSHA drop from 1970 to 1993. OSHA might actually have slowed the downward trend in fatal injuries.

    Whole story here.

  26. Counting the pages in the Federal Register, or any other book of regulations, isn’t a good metric. In many cases, there is a one paragraph “Thou shalt not…” statement, followed by dozens of pages of exemptions.

    So would it be safe to assume that if a regulation is far more exception than actual rule that it could be judged to be ineffective and therefore worthy of being excised?

  27. the Union of Concerned Scientists
    Is thoreau in this group? What are they so concerned about?

    I love the idea, though it is very Constitutionally sketchy for the reasons detailed above. IANAL and maybe a lot of the Constitutional issues go away if Congress fills the board, but I?m not sure. Of course, I would expand this beyond government programs and have every law in the books come up for vote every 10 years for review. It would be hard to justify subsidies for mohair for uniforms for WWI. As an added bonus, with all the laws on the books, Congress would have to spend a ton of their time just renewing laws and would have less time making new ones. Filibuster long enough and anarchy will ensue. ANARCHY!!! (Cue Ruthless)

    Of course, this would require amending the Constitution and Congress would never pass it.

  28. No, mediageek, it would not. You actually have to do the hard work of learning about the issue, the regulations, and their impact before making such a judgement.

    Unless you’re willing to go the “Regulations are bad, mmmm-kay?” route.

  29. This is the most insightful thing joe’s ever said:

    “What does it say that your best hope of phasing out programs is to create a mandate that they be reviewed, rather than allowing the question to come up or not as the public and their representatives see fit, and then give the power over that review to an unelected body?”

    joe, I think it says that our Congress sucks ass.

  30. It would be hard to justify subsidies for mohair for uniforms for WWI. As an added bonus, with all the laws on the books, Congress would have to spend a ton of their time just renewing laws and would have less time making new ones.

    Fat chance. They’d just roll all previous laws into one “omnibus” law and pass it at the beginning of each session with little, if any, review.

  31. I’d love to see how they justify the continuation of the War on Drugs.

  32. Fat chance. They’d just roll all previous laws into one “omnibus” law and pass it at the beginning of each session with little, if any, review.

    Good point phocian. I should never underestimate the laziness and non-responsiveness of our legislators.

  33. This is something Congress should be doing, not the Executive. That being said, the House and the Senate should set up permanent committees on the removal of ineffectual programs.

    Let’s just say my hopes of this happening aren’t exactly high.

  34. Does anybody actually believe that the Bush administration will actually do something to decrease the scope and cost of government?

    Oh, no doubt this commission will issue some reports, but does anybody think that political capitol will be spent to get its recommendations implemented?

  35. Jennifer, no problem. They’ve got tons of numbers – quantity interdicted, number of arrests, number of convictions, dollar value of seized assets…hey, wait a minute, you don’t think this would allow the president to establish whatever standards of measurement would support his existing policy preferences, do you?

  36. Oh, and if somebody actually does think that the Bush administration would downsize government, I’ve got this great time-share investment that I’d like to talk to you about. Trust me, this will net you enough to send your kids to the Ivy League and still retire to Palm Springs!

  37. If I thought that this plan would actually result in any programs being eliminated, I would be all for it. What we would actually get is a huge layer of “accountability measures” and the requisite support staff, auditors, consultants, lawyers, and mounds of paper to document whether or not those measures are being met. In the public arena, the usual result of such an exercise is not that programs get eliminated, but that the measures get changed and the whole cycle starts over (see DARE, NCLB, for example).

  38. Chuck-

    Good point! No doubt every federal office will have a “Sunset Commission Compliance Officer”, who has a staff as well. And every so often the whole office will have to go through this review, and probably hire temps to keep operations going during the review.

    Factor in the new Department of Sunset Clauses, complete with a Cabinet Secretary and large legal department, plus a huge West Virginia Bureau (inserted at the insistence of Robert Byrd), and we’re talking about serious expense.

    Then, as part of some compromise, the omnibus legislation creating it will create a tax exemption for anybody protesting outside an abortion clinic if the sign is made from wood pulp grown in a swing state.

    No thanks.

  39. This proposal looks like meaningless grandstanding to me – as many posters have pointed out, the Constitutional issues alone are enough to have it quickly killed in the Supreme Court. Even if it did survive the legal challenge, the phrase ” . . . unless the Congress takes specific action to continue them” is a loophole big enough to drive the Superchief through. Congress would simply pack every appropriations bill with agency provisos and attach funding riders to all of the Administration’s favorite initiatives.

    I think that GWB and Co. are beginning to feel some heat from the paleoconservative wing of the Republican coalition, and the Administration is trying to convince the Buchananites that the GOP still is a “small-government,” fiscally conservative party, even while it drives spending and debt limits through the roof.

  40. However a Sunset Clause is implemented (amend the Con), how about these triggers:

    1) A law not shown to have been violated for x years becomes void through irrelevance.

    2) A law not successfully prosecuted in x percent of accusations becomes void through unenforceability.

    We’ll need a little more detail, as murder should probably be illegal even if nobody has be killed for a long time, and phony accusations could nullify desired law.

  41. Yet another way to hogtie congress. They already can’t get anything done due to filibusters & other nonsense, now this bill wants to create an even bigger workload for them having to reapprove bills every ten years. I think the basic idea is good, but the unilateral nature of it is VERY bad. There needs to be some balancing force to keep the commision in line. At the very least, the commission should be 50/50 dems repubs. If you can’t get at least one democrat on the commission to vote to do away with the program, then it’s probably worth keeping.

  42. I like the principle, but none of these proposals sound too hot. The basic reason people think something like this is necessary is because Congress isn’t doing its job. If some fancy new commission or board was created, it probably wouldn’t be long before it stopped doing its job too.

  43. So, instead of a new committee and review process, I counter-propose a constitutional amendment that all laws passed by congress will expire every 10 years, period. Congress is welcome to put equivalent laws back on the books through the normal process if they so choose.

  44. How does this proposed sunset commission differ from the current military base closure commission? Doesn’t the list of bases recommended for closure pass through Congress for review? Haven’t a number of bases been kept open because of congressional action?

    If the military commission is an Executive creature, and the argument is that the Executive has power to deploy the military budget as he sees fit, then wouldn’t the same argument apply to other agencies? Couldn’t the Executive close all but one of the offices of the targeted agency and still be respectful of the separation of powers? Congress of course still has the last word and can legislate the re-opening of the closed offices.

    I’ve often thought that if I were made King for 10 minutes, the one thing I would do would be to make every action of government subject to a sunset provision. Not just Congress, but the Executive and Judiciary. In the case of the Judiciary, the sunset provision would probably need to be very long-term (say 50 years) but the executive would be very short (say the end of the current administration). Legislation would be middle-ground, between 10 and 20 years. If Congress is concerned that a regulation promulgated by the Executive will expire in under 4 years, then Congress should raise the regulation to the level of a statute so that it would out-live the administration.

    The point would be that the actions of government are continually being reaffirmed if they are desirable and discarded if they were mistaken. Good ideas should have a broad constituency to keep them going, while the supporters of bad ideas have to work a lot harder than their opponents to keep the bad idea going.

  45. I think I’ve finally found an Amendment proposal I can get behind – nobody’s got the right idea… so to speak.

  46. nobody,
    I said the same thing earlier, but phocian showed me the error of my ways. Congress would just reaffirm every law set to expire in an omnibus bill every year.

  47. Mo, what if you require that they address each piece of legislation separately in the Amendment? (Sorry if I didn’t give you due credit – I was enamored by the possiblity to be clever about “nobody.”)

  48. Not only should all laws automatically sunset after some interval, but there should also be a Constitutional amendment that expressly prohibits Congress from delegating its legislative authority to the executive branch. Any “regulation” that has the force of law and can cause people to be fined and/or arrested for violation, is in fact a LAW, and we need an amendment that states that *every* law must be part of the text of a bill passed by Congress. What we have now is a system where Congress delegates much of its legislative authority to the Executive branch through the regulatory processes. This is an equally egregious violation of the separation of powers, yet for some reason people don’t seem to get as upset about it.

  49. Bad idea for a law, I think. Not because I’m a Democrat and think every federal program has an inalienable right to exist until someone notices those particular billions of dollars being wasted and rallies a massive political campaign to get it removed, but because it really does sound like a fundamental enough change that needs to be a Consitutional amendment.

  50. Chuck, I feel the same way about the line-item veto.

  51. Mo,
    The Union of Concerned Scientists is an activist group that campaigns for political causes dressed up all pretty as “scientific” issues. As a scientist, I wouldn’t touch them with a ten foot pole with a spike on the end. As for the rest of the article, I’m all about the whole let-the-FDA-sunset thing. Let it DIE!

  52. My main problem with the Sunset Commission (besides the fact that is sounds like something out of “Logan’s Run”) is that it sounds too easily manipulated. While I’ll agree that there are some government departments that deserve a good pruning, I don’t want to put the fate of organizations like the EPA in the hands of five people. Especially under the control of George “Bankruptcy Bill” Bush. If it had enough people to ensure that a decision was sound and unbiased (like, say, ten or fifteen), then maybe I’d stick behind it. As it is, it seems too shoddy to stand upon.

  53. What about an amendement that required congress to attach a sunset provision to every law not to exceed 20 years?

  54. Nick: In the original form, did overruling the commission’s agency-terminating decissons require the ordinary procedures for new legislation–i.e., a majority in the House, 60 votes in the Senate (even Frist is not talking about eliminating the filibuster for ordinary legislation as opposed to jusidical confirmations) and the president’s signature (or else a two-thitrds vote in each House to overrule his veto)? To require that certainly *is* a massive shift from Congress to the executive in terms of power tp decide whether agencies stay or go, and makes it almost impossible to restore any agency a commission appointed by the president wants to eliminate. This may be a good or a bad thing, but it certainly *would* be “radical.”

  55. What’s the bill number of this sunset proposal? I want to start flooding Congress with petitions in support!

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