Republicans Need Sunset Theme to Reach Their Dawn

Sept. 1 (Bloomberg) — There's less than a week until Congress returns and the Republican Party still doesn't know what it's doing.

The GOP response to the Obama administration's health-care legislation has been typically lightweight. Lawmakers who criticized Obama didn't emphasize health care's underlying problems. They didn't point out that government's role in health care helped generate the current mess. Instead they focused on something easy: attacking the Obama team for, allegedly, backing death panels to select which senior citizens live or die.

Death panels make fabulous talking points but, as the president points out, assailing them is no substitute for comprehensive reform. Such Republican superficiality is likely to cost the party in 2010.

There is a way Republicans can improve their status: start a sunset movement.

Most people know what sunsetting is in a general way: the termination of an obsolete government office or program. There is already a sunset caucus in the House, led by two Republicans, Kevin Brady of Texas and Jason Chaffetz of Utah. Its official goal is to "provide for the permanent elimination, de-funding, or repeal of a federal program agency or department at a date certain."

The caucus's first achievement is a proud one: Republican lawmakers managed to attach a line in the education appropriations bill passed this summer that eliminated an $8.7 million cultural program to connect Massachusetts whalers with their ancestors in Alaska and Hawaii.

Estate Tax

A more traditional sunset provision is the kind included at the time an institution is created. An example would be the Bush estate-tax cut, which was programmed to disappear in 2010.

The most ambitious legislation creates a sunset regime to monitor government programs and kill them off. Related is legislation that permits institutions to continue only if Congress reaffirms their existence in periodic votes. Perhaps once a year, once a decade.

The first appeal of the sunset idea is its relative modesty. When contemplating sunsetting, Republicans don't have to get over their reluctance to liquidate an old federal program, or oppose a new one. All they have to do is demand that a new program's life be limited, or that that program get a review.

Second is that sunsetting is something Democrats can support. At the state level lawmakers from both parties have voted in various forms of sunset legislation over the decades.

Curtailing Government

Such legislation hasn't always achieved its goal of curtailing government or halting useless programs. As scholar Richard C. Kearney, director of North Carolina State University's School of Public and International Affairs, showed in a survey paper, many states in the end dropped or limited their sunset programs.

Still, some states, Texas especially, believe that sunsetting has helped contain their budgets.

The third appeal of federal sunsetting is that it reaches past Capitol Hill. The biggest challenge of Congress today is that topics such as Social Security and Medicare aren't even under discussion. The assumption is that questioning the existence of those programs would stir the ire of voters. But that very assumption shuts voters out of the political process.

If such questioning were simply part of the lawmaking process — the annual Social Security Existence Review — then it would be harder to assign all the blame of questioning that existence to individual lawmakers. The ensuing conversation might be more productive than the Obama reform debate, which assiduously avoids discussion of the limits of Medicare.

New Movement

Back in the 1970s, in the time of post-Watergate disgust, there actually was a federal sunset movement. Today, the impetus for a new one comes not only from the Republican sunset caucus but also from proposals put forward by various lawmakers.

Senator John Thune of South Dakota is sponsoring legislation that would establish a one-year timeframe to end government ownership of private entities acquired under the Troubled Asset Relief Program and block further acquisitions.

"There has to be an exit strategy, preferably one that is planned from the beginning," Thune said last Friday.

John Chachas, a Republican who is running for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's seat, argues that "the federal government should accelerate its exit of ownership of banks, insurers and car companies and reveal its plan to accomplish this by the end of 2010."

"If you are a small-government conservative, sunsetting makes a lot of sense," says Kearney, who is now overseeing a fresh 50-state survey of state sunsetting activity.

Great to OK

What separates an optimal sunset device from an OK one? The answer is the automatic aspect. The sunset caucus can be proud of its de-funding of the whaling program. But that de-funding had an ad hoc, partisan quality to it, just as, say, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's call for a sunsetting of the U.S. presence in Iraq did in 2007.

I've written before that the GOP should become the party of growth. Let it also try to be the party of sunset. Substitute rumor mongering about Medicare death panels with concrete plans for death panels for bureaucracies.

In terms of the election map, sunsetting also makes sense. Republican revival has always begun in the West, and most of the lawmakers who find themselves drawn to the concept of sunsetting are from Nevada, Texas, Utah. Sunsetting is another way for Republicans to find a new dawn.

(Amity Shlaes, author of "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression" is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

© Copyright 2009 Bloomberg

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