Congress’ Expiration Dates for Laws Turn out to be a Solution in Name Only

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

From tax cuts to national security measures, Congress has refused to allow expiring laws to die, preferring instead to extend their life again and again.


When lawmakers adopted the controversial Patriot Act, they included a “sunset” provision that would cause the law to end automatically unless Congress felt it necessary to reauthorize it. They did just that last year, despite complaints from liberals and libertarians that the law gives too much power to the government and does not protect civil liberties.


A similar thing happened with the tax cuts first adopted during the early years of the George W. Bush administration. Many of these tax breaks were set to end in 2010, but Congress renewed them for two more years. Now, Republicans and President Barack Obama are grappling over whether to keep them around for even longer as they negotiate the “fiscal cliff” problem.


A more extreme example of the unending nature of sunset clauses is the one relating to the creation of the U.S. Parole Commission, a semi-autonomous agency within the U.S. Department of Justice that decides parole cases involving certain federal and District of Columbia (DC) prisoners. It was supposed to cease to exist in 1992, but its life has been extended five times since then, most recently in 2011. It is now due to dissolve in November 2013.


“The trouble with sunset clauses is usually they’re not enforced, because Congress is either too busy—or, more accurately—too neglectful,” Representative Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee) told The Washington Post.  Cooper added that a “sunset clause is a very appropriate remedy. But it’s got to be enforced to mean anything.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

In Congress, Sunset Clauses Are Commonly Passed But Rarely Followed Through (by David A. Fahrenthold, Washington Post)

Patriot Act: Three Controversial Provisions That Congress Voted To Keep (by Gail Russell Chaddock, Christian Science Monitor)


Leave a comment