Is Congress finally becoming aware that growth in federal spending has gotten out of control? Although a single hearing shouldn't spark excessive exuberance among the fiscally responsible, there is some evidence that Members of Congress are becoming increasingly open to addressing long-term budget problems and using performance budgeting as a tool in this effort.
In a subcommittee hearing earlier this month, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) heard testimony from Comptroller General David Walker and OMB Deputy Director Clay Johnson III. They testified that federal spending growth looms as a major problem and that performance budgeting can be part of the solution. Sen. Coburn agreed. "One of the greatest impediments to the President's vision of an ownership society," he said, "is an inside-the-beltway entitlement society in which federal agencies expect ever-increasing budgets regardless of their performance." How refreshing to hear such a sentiment from a Member of Congress.
The President's Management Agenda
Since early in his first term, President George W. Bush has been trying to make the federal government more results-oriented through his President's Management Agenda. Central to that agenda has been a systematic review of every federal program with the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART). So far, three-fifths of all government programs have received their initial reviews, and the remainder will be completed over the next two years.
David Walker testified that while the PART scores are contributing to an increased supply of data about the performance of federal programs, spending patterns have not yet changed. "It is not clear," he said, "that PART has had any significant impact on authorization, appropriations, and oversight activities to date." Congressional buy-in to the concept of performance-based budgeting will be necessary to work within the especially tight budgets of the near future.
Commissions May Be Part of the Answer
It may also be necessary to build a structural mechanism to act on PART findings. The Base Realignment and Closing (BRAC) process has been successful because it bundles the benefits of base realignment and closures into a single package, rather than allowing a vote on each individual base. That is the kind of approach that Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), advocates. He testified that program performance has already begun to improve during the short history the PART reviews, but further improvement will require input from Congress:
We also need to involve Congress more directly in holding agencies and programs accountable for their performance through a Sunset Commission, which provides regular, formal scrutiny of Federal programs. This bipartisan commission would review each Federal program on a schedule established by the Congress to determine whether it is producing results and should continue to exist. Programs would automatically terminate according to the schedule unless the Congress took action to continue them.
"Sunset Commissions" would change the status quo in Washington. Instead of assuming that federal programs would continue indefinitely, the assumption would be that a program ends when it has accomplished its purpose. "A periodic reexamination offers the prospect of addressing emerging needs by weeding out programs and policies that are redundant, outdated, or ineffective," said Comptroller General David Walker"
Johnson also spoke in favor of special commissions that would examine specific government functions in a crosscutting fashion to eliminate overlap and redundancy. These panels, called "Results Commissions," would consist of experts from relevant fields whose findings would be reviewed by Congress in an expedited manner.
Time to Cut the Waste
Sen. Coburn intends to pursue this issue with further hearings in Washington and around the country. He plans to use his Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, and International Security to make the case for spending reform.
With both the executive branch and the legislative branch recognizing that eliminating wasteful and ineffective programs should be a priority, the time for ideas like Sunset Commissions and Results Commissions may be at hand
Keith Miller is a Research Assistant in, and Alison Fraser is Director of, the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Senator Tom Coburn, press release, "Dr. Coburn Praises New Bush Administration Initiative to Improve Effectiveness of Federal Programs," June 14, 2005.
David M. Walker, 21st Century Challenges: Performance Budgeting Could Help Promote Necessary Reexamination, United States Government Accountability Office, GAO-05-709T, at /static/reportimages/F584ABF906C62B3A9462B6210C7666EA.pdf.
For more on the budget outlook see 21st Century Challenges: Reexamining the Base of the Federal Government, United States Government Accountability Office, Gao-05-325sp, at /static/reportimages/150EE9B99648105588B478A76DAED462.pdf.
 Clay Johnson III, Testimony before the Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management,
Government Information and International Security Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, June 14, 2005, at http://hsgac.senate.gov/_files/PARTTestimony.pdf.
 Walker, 21st Century Challenges, pp. 6-7.