Think of this as you would milk: Federal agencies would have an expiration date that becomes effective unless Congress acts to make sure they aren't discarded.
That's the premise behind Bush administration-backed legislation to provide for a Sunset Commission. The president would rank agencies to be evaluated and appoint a seven-person bipartisan panel to do the work. Essentially, the agencies would be on notice that they had to meet performance standards or face major change or elimination. The Sunset Commission itself would sunset in 2026.
Another bill would create Results Commissions, which would convene over nine-month periods to look at overlapping or redundant programs that the government might be better off without.
Prospects for such proposals in the past have not been particularly good, but co-sponsors of this legislation think White House commitment will make a difference this time. Co-sponsor Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) said he hopes hearings will be scheduled in the fall.
Very occasionally, federal programs are eliminated. The Federal Helium Reserve program was deflated, and the Civil Aeronautics Board, the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Federal Board of Tea Examiners were thrown overboard.
Sunset commissions have been proposed before, and the approach has been tried in some 20 states, most notably Texas.
The Bush administration came up with both ideas as part of what it calls its plan to make government more efficient and to provide better returns for taxpayers. Critics call the effort a way to eliminate agencies and the programs and regulations that go with them, a charge the administration rejects.
"The big opportunity is to get programs to work better, not get rid of them," said Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.
Robert Shull, director of regulatory policy at OMB Watch, a nonprofit group that monitors OMB, said there were no safeguards in the bills to stop the administration from "reorganizing" out of existence programs that support environmental or health and safety regulation.
Johnson said it was important there be an institutionalized system for review. "No program is performing at a never-can-get-better level," he said. OMB said 30 percent of federal programs are currently rated as ineffective or can't show results.
"Our government is too fat, and we need a thoughtful way to trim it," said Brady, who is the author of several previous, similar bills. "This is not a one-time fix [for] just a few agencies. You hold every agency accountable."
The model for the administration's initiative is the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which was set up in 1978 and has abolished 47 agencies and consolidated 11. Each agency in the state submits to a review every 12 years, and a professional staff helps with the evaluation. Commission data show an estimated $736.9 million was saved between 1982 and 2003.
The Texas commission requires self-studies by agencies, and even influential ones such as the Public Utility Commission and Texas Education Agency go through the process.
There is strong public participation -- some say too strong because lobbying has prevented sunset in some cases. Governing magazine reported that one commission member called the process "pet food for lobbyists."
The first sunset law was enacted in 1976 in Colorado, and some 36 others were in place by the early 1980s. But some commissions were sunsetted themselves when states found the process too expensive and time-consuming and that politically sensitive agencies were protected.
The administration plan calls for the Sunset Commission to evaluate an agency or program at least once every 10 years. The Results Commissions would focus on reorganization "where multiple federal programs have similar, related or overlapping responsibilities" and are under multiple agencies and congressional committees. Public hearings on the reorganizing could be held but are not required.
Exempt from review are rules that protect the environment, health, safety and civil rights, as well as enforcement programs.
Jeff Lubbers, former research director of the Administrative Conference of the U.S. and now an administrative law professor at Washington College of Law at American University, said the legislation would give the administration "the ultimate regulatory control mechanism."
Lubbers worried that decisions could be made without public input and would result in "ferocious lobbying" outside the public's view. Congress has the power to analyze programs, he said, during the reauthorization and appropriations process and in oversight hearings.
William L. Kovacs, vice president of regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has a different concern. Aggressive use of the commissions might result in abolishing programs and rules that have become established business practices, such as procedures for handling hazardous waste.
He said the chamber prefers that rules, not whole agencies, be reviewed to weed out "a couple hundred rules" that don't work well -- at least for the business community.
Maurice McTigue, director of the George Mason University Mercatus Center's government accountability project, said that some agencies have become "conglomerates" and that a review would help them decide whether they should get back to their "core" business. The process also provides discipline for Congress. "It forces legislators to reconsider the policies that set up the programs in the first place," he said.
Another backer is Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. He said Congress could reorganize and consolidate government programs, "but they never do that."