Today I testified about appropriations with expired authorizations before the Senate Budget Committee and gave the following opening remarks. Since this is a technical subject, I started with some background and then discussed CBO’s findings.
What Are Authorizations?
Legislative practice has long differentiated the laws that establish federal entities or programs from the laws that fund them. Authorizing legislation is the first component of that practice, and appropriation laws are the second. Specifically, once the authorizations for the agencies, programs, or activities are in place, annual appropriation laws separately provide funding for them.
Authorizing legislation can take different forms. It can be organic, or enabling, legislation, which broadly authorizes the creation and operation of an agency, program, or activity. Such legislation may or may not include an authorization of appropriations, which explicitly authorizes the funding for the agency, program, or activity.
Authorizations of appropriations can specify the amounts that may be appropriated for certain fiscal years or for an unspecified period. They can also indicate that the amounts are indefinite, authorizing the appropriation of “such sums as may be necessary.” If an authorization indicates either specific or indefinite amounts, I’ll refer to it as an explicit authorization.
Such authorizations are intended to offer guidance regarding the amount of funds necessary to carry out the authorized activities of an agency. Even when an explicit authorization of appropriations has expired, the organic legislation usually remains in effect.
What Has CBO Reported?
Each year, we provide the Congress with a report titled Unauthorized Appropriations and Expiring Authorizations, as mandated by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. Last month we published the most recent one, known as the UAEA report, covering fiscal year 2016. Our UAEA report seeks to identify programs whose explicit authorization of appropriations has expired.
For 2016, we reported that a total of $310 billion—about one-quarter of discretionary appropriations in that year—was provided for programs and activities whose explicit authorization of appropriations had expired and whose appropriations could be identified. More than half of those unauthorized appropriations were provided for programs whose explicit authorization expired more than a decade ago.
I want to make four points about the UAEA reports:
- The law requires CBO to prepare an annual report that identifies all programs and activities funded during a fiscal year for which authorizations of appropriations have not been enacted for that year.
- Our report includes only those programs whose explicit authorization of appropriations has expired. CBO cannot identify programs or activities that are receiving an appropriation even though they never had an explicit authorization of appropriations.
- Our report sometimes identifies a program whose explicit authorization of appropriations has expired, but not the amount appropriated because the program’s funding is part of a larger appropriation account. Quite a few of those amounts are probably small, and some may be part of appropriations listed elsewhere in the report.
- And finally, even if the authorization of appropriations has expired, our report does not identify whether the organic, or enabling, statute governing a program or activity has expired. A permanent law may continue to set the policies and guidelines under which such appropriations are to be obligated. Identifying cases when enabling statutes never existed or have expired is not the focus of the law’s requirement; to identify such cases among all programs and activities of the federal government would be virtually impossible.
To give a concrete sense of what’s behind the numbers in our report, here are some examples. When we issued our latest report, the authorization of appropriations for several large agencies or programs had expired, including:
- NIH, with appropriations of $31 billion for 2016, and
- NASA, with appropriations of $19 billion for 2016.
Even though the authorizations of appropriations for those programs have expired, organic legislation permanently authorizes the activities of those agencies. Those laws were most recently modified in 2007 for NIH and in 2010 for NASA.
Some other large appropriations with expired authorizations of appropriations include the following:
- $27 billion for programs authorized in the Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005,
- $26 billion for programs authorized in the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Year 2003, and
- $26 billion for programs authorized in the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998.
Expiration of authorizations for particular large agencies or large programs can significantly affect the changes from one year to the next. For example, CBO reported that the total amount of unauthorized appropriations in 2008 was $167 billion, but it has been noticeably larger since then, averaging close to $300 billion. That increase was attributable, in part, to the expiration in 2009 of the authorizations of appropriations for both NIH and the programs in the Department of Justice that I mentioned earlier.
On average, over the past decade, about one-fourth of total discretionary appropriations were provided for programs and activities whose explicit authorizations of appropriations had expired.
Keith Hall is CBO’s Director.