What Still Matters: A Government on Autopilot

An interesting tidbit on how the government operates…on autopilot: approximately 80% of what the government spends on a yearly basis is spent without “any action by the current Congress.”

Did you know that we are just now ending our preparation for a Y2K bug that never materialized… SEVENTEEN years ago?

When a new president is elected, and the executive branch is therefore under new leadership, all regulations and programs continue running from the previous Administration, and usually the one before that, and often times the one before that…

It naturally takes time for a new team to set new priorities, and to fully understand which prior programs are forging ahead on autopilot (with the help of career staff), in order to intercede.

Continuity is not the worst thing in the world. We would not want all government programs to halt at midnight of an outgoing president’s term, awaiting new direction from a team of people just getting up and running. Stepping into a government operation that spends over 3.5 trillion dollars each year is no small task.

But if what George Washington said in 1783 is true that “At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy the fault will be entirely their own” how will we know if we are happy with what our government is doing if anywhere near 80% of it is running on autopilot with minor oversight?

As the Mercatus Center points out, “These autopilot costs are the result of past legislation, interest payments, and rules created by government agencies, all of which bypass the annual appropriations process that exists to ensure the accountability of our elected officials.”


Former Secretary of State John Kerry referred to this state of ‘autopilot’ when apologizing for U.S. surveillance, saying “certain practices occurred ‘on autopilot’ and vow[ing] to meet allies to repair damage caused by NSA spying revelations.” (The Guardian, 2013)

The term ‘autopilot’ has been used to describe how government runs when political appointee “positions go unfilled for long periods of time.” (Brookings, 2014)


What happens when government programs run on autopilot?

Paperwork overload.

Seventeen years after Y2K failed to be a real threat, the Trump Administration is pulling the plug on this cautionary program. This puts an end to various paperwork requirements (i.e. regulations), “including an obscure rule that requires [agencies] to continue providing updates on their preparedness for a bug that afflicted some computers at the turn of the century.” (Bloomberg)

Programs run amok.

Background: The 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) was funded by the U.S. government to provide funds to troubled banks. The Special Inspector General for TARP (SIGTARP) was established at the same time to monitor the banks that received taxpayer assistance. A total of 975 banks and related entities received funding through TARP. Taxpayer dollars were spent, so it is good that the recipients were audited.

Almost 9 years after its creation, while the programs that spent taxpayer dollars have ended and a vast majority of the funds have been returned to the U.S. Treasury, SIGTARP is still going strong. (Wash Post, Treasury)

As of 2016, “the agency employs 140 people, including 85 special agents who are permitted to carry badges and guns.” Prior reports noted the agency’s “27 vehicles with sirens and lights spread out in its [five] branch offices across the country.” SIGTARP was given “law enforcement authority,” but… “not everyone has been paying attention to the emergence of the new police powers. One person who was involved with the creation of TARP expressed surprise when told of SIGTARP’s gun-wielding agents. ‘Really?’ the person asked. ‘Holy —-.’” (CNBC)

SIGTARP receives an annual appropriation, and it testified regularly before Congress until 2014, yet had flown pretty much under the general public’s radar until it asked for an upgrade for its police cars. WHY does a bank auditing entity have police cars!?!


So, what can we do about it?

Mercatus scholars Jason Fichtner and Patrick McLaughlin have proposed a step toward addressing the high cost of a government on autopilot by “incorporating economic analyses of legislation and regulation into the budget process.” They suggest assessing the costs as the program is proposed, and then as part of a five year review process.

Their goal is to get hidden regulatory costs into the appropriation process, which means the proposed, actual and ongoing costs would need to be considered and approved on an annual basis. “Indeed, any effort to account for these autopilot costs would help promote transparency and accountability within the federal government.” (Mercatus)

Including a sunset provision (i.e. an end date) in legislation or language to halt a program if it isn’t meeting specific targets are other ways to address the automatic nature of our federal government.


Lesson Learned

It is easier to create a program (as difficult as that can sometimes be) than it is to eliminate a program. So, be wary when you hear of the creation of new programs. We’ve seen it with Obamacare. First, it was a long and hairy road to create the program. Now, it is unlikely that the healthcare subsidy will ever go away. Once an entitlement is on the books, it is political suicide to remove it.

If there is a new program proposed here are questions to ask your legislator 1) Is the program completely necessary? and 2) When does funding halt? 3) Is there a review period to assess the good, bad and ugly of that program as well as the regulations that accompanied its implementation?


3-Step Challenge:

1- Go to the website of your Senators and Representative, look under his/her about section to locate the committees upon which they serve.

2- Call or email their offices, with a message such as, “I see that you serve on X committee, can you tell me which programs under your committee’s jurisdiction you propose reining in or eliminating?”

3- Tell us the agency and the program(s) that should be right-sized or eliminated.

To find your Senator, click here.

To find your Congressional Rep, click here.


Regulation can be a great topic of a Circle discussion, see the link to the brief here.


Visit www.thepolicycircle.org to learn about our government and how you can influence policy debate.

What Still Matters is provided by Kristin Jackson, who serves as policy editor for The Policy Circle.   Kristin is a middle-of-America native with a decade of experience working on policy in our nation’s capital.