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Zombie Spending That Just Won’t Die


By Romina Boccia, Cato Institute


Congress is failing at governing and oversight by continuing to throw good money after bad.

Case in point: Spending on expired federal programs is on the rise, growing by 6 percent compared to last year and by 77 percent since 2012.

The legislature is supposed to spend money in a two‐​step process of authorization and appropriation. But for a growing number of expired programs, Congress is skipping the re‐​authorization part. This reduces oversight and increases spending that’s of dubious nature.

In 2022 alone, Congress allocated $461 billion in spending for federal programs whose authorizations had expired. More than half of this spending went to programs that were set to expire more than 10 years ago. This is according to a new Congressional Budget Office report that conveniently dropped just a few days before Labor Day weekend.

Some of the spending in this broad bucket may be warranted, such as certain spending for veterans’ health care or for limited activities of the State Department.

Other unauthorized spending is ineffective, wasteful, and unconstitutional.

  • Such as Head Start, a federal pre‐​school program that fails to consistently improve a range of outcomes for children.
  • Or the Childcare and Development Fund which does more harm than good with exposed children having “experienced lower math and reading scores and an increase in behavioral problems,” as highlighted by my colleagues Ryan Bourne and Vanessa Calder.
  • Or the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, a federal job training program that fails to measurably improve earnings among its target population. As my colleague Chris Edwards pointed out: “Federal job training programs have been known for their wastefulness since the New Deal when the word “boondoggle” was adopted to describe them.”

Like zombies, these programs just won’t die. Instead, they continue gobbling up taxpayer dollars and driving up the national debt.

While being unauthorized doesn’t necessarily mean that spending is inappropriate or wasteful, it does mean that Congress has decided to shirk its responsibility to follow budget law—like a teenager deciding not to shower before bed after returning home from soccer practice. Sometimes you just don’t feel like it, I guess. The result is the same: the outcome stinks.

The whole point behind establishing a two‐​step process for federal spending is to make it harder to spend taxpayer money lavishly. In theory, having to authorize programs before being able to allocate money towards them should encourage more deliberation and debate. This process should lead to more favorable outcomes for taxpayers, namely fiscal restraint. Instead, we get more wasteful spending as members of Congress skip the first part.

It’s a good idea for lawmakers to include expiration dates when authorizing new programs. As sunset dates near, lawmakers should compare intended with achieved outcomes and consider whether it makes sense to reauthorize certain programs or whether it’s best to let them die. But this process only works if lawmakers follow it as intended. Instead, Congress has adopted a bad habit of waiving the rules and allocating monies to expired “Zombie” programs anyway. With fiscal year 2022 appropriations expiring at the end of September, we’re likely about to witness this bad habit on repeat.

It comes down to a lack of discipline. A general unwillingness to have tough conversations and make decisions that could upset certain special interests by ending programs they benefit from. And the more Congress shirks its authorization responsibilities, the more expired, unauthorized spending piles up. Like a giant pile up of dirty laundry that you never get around to dealing with.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R‑WA) champions legislation with the goal of ending unauthorized appropriations. The Unauthorized Spending Accountability Act (H.R.2056) is one step in the right direction. While Congress wastes money on myriad programs that shouldn’t exist in the first place, unauthorized appropriations are a prime target for cuts.


Romina Boccia is director of budget and entitlement policy at the Cato Institute.