Why doesn’t the federal government seem to be getting any smaller?

From the owners of small-town mom-and-pop stores drowning in red tape to families struggling to plan for the future, we often hear this question from people across the country. They are frustrated by a government that gets bigger and more bloated with nearly each passing year. And they should be.

One of the most egregious causes of this consistent growth is the pervasiveness of what is referred to as “unauthorized spending.”

Congressional rules are supposed to preclude the appropriation of funds for anything that isn’t created by an “authorization bill,” which gives agencies, programs and projects a legal basis for their existence. These authorizations are usually for a set time period, after which these entities must be authorized again. Only after passing these bills is Congress supposed to allocate taxpayer money to fund them.

This process is specifically designed so lawmakers weed out duplication across departments and agencies, cut obsolete programs and reform those that are functioning improperly. Too often, however, lawmakers simply ignore that critical first step, breaking the rules that are supposed to govern their actions. Every year, Congress fails to authorize huge swaths of the federal government while continuing to throw money at them.

By doing so, lawmakers are unintentionally funding programs that may have outlived their usefulness or intended life span. This means that Congress is abdicating its duty to responsibly use the “power of the purse.” Instead of scrutinizing spending, too many lawmakers let it run on autopilot – an insult to the hardworking taxpayers they claim to represent.

This problem is little known but widespread. In January, the Congressional Budget Office released a report describing its breadth and depth. At least $310 billion – nearly a tenth of all federal spending in 2016 – goes toward items whose authorizations have already expired or will expire at the end of the fiscal year. More than half of this total goes to agencies, projects and programs that haven’t been authorized in over a decade.

There are thousands of programs and projects that haven’t been reauthorized. This includes the funding of “international and foreign language studies programs” – something that expired in 2014 but still received $72 million this fiscal year. There’s also the provision of taxpayer money for “administrative expenses” associated with government-guaranteed “mortgage-backed securities.” It expired 20 years ago, yet received $23 million this year.

Hundreds of items also receive an unknown amount of funding; that information will not be known until after the current fiscal year ends. The list includes the 1990 authorization for the Environmental Protection Agency to “test . . . lead substitute gasoline additives” and a 1988 item to provide “debt reduction in developing countries with tropical rainforests,” among others.

Finally, many federal agencies receive a significant portion of their funding without authorization. The Institute of Peace, the Bureau of Industry and Security, the Appalachian Regional Commission – the list reads like alphabet soup. Others are more well-known, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission ($1.6 billion), NASA ($19 billion) and the National Institutes of Health ($31 billion).

We could keep going. The point is that thousands of projects, programs and entire agencies are receiving funding without an open debate or discussion as to why. The result, unsurprisingly, is a government that grows in size and cost nearly each year.

This must stop. We can’t get government spending under control until we take it off autopilot. That is why we encourage lawmakers to take up and pass the Unauthorized Spending Accountability Act.

The USA Act, as it is known, would guarantee that all spending was authorized before it got a dime of taxpayer money. In the first year after any program or agency’s expiration, its budget would be cut by 10 percent. A 15 percent cut would take effect in the second and third years after expiration. And after the third year, it would sunset entirely unless Congress voted to reauthorize the budget item in question.

This law would force Congress to scrutinize every dollar of federal spending – lawmakers’ most important duty. It’s about returning a voice to the American people and giving them the opportunity, through their elected representatives, to review, rethink or eliminate these programs.

Every day, we hear Americans’ frustration about Washington’s seemingly unstoppable growth. For their sake, it’s time to force Congress to justify every taxpayer dollar it spends.

— The Washington Post News Service

with Bloomberg News