A statutory provision providing that a particular agency, benefit, or law will expire on a particular date, unless it is reauthorized by the legislature.
Federal and state governments grew dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s. Many executive branch administrative agencies were established to oversee government programs. The escalation of government budgets and the perception that government bureaucracy was not accountable led Congress and many state legislatures in the 1970s to enact "sunset" laws.
Sunset laws state that a given agency will cease to exist after a fixed period of time unless the legislature reenacts its statutory charter. Sunset provisions differ greatly in their details, but they share the common belief that it is useful to compel the Congress or a state legislature to periodically reexamine its delegations of authority and to assess the utility of those delegations in the light of experience.
There are two types of sunset provisions. In some instances the statute creating a particular administrative agency contains a sunset provision applicable only to that agency. In other instances a state may enact a general sunset law that may eliminate any agency that is unable to demonstrate its effectiveness.
Sunset provisions have had a checkered history. Although they were popular at the state level in the 1970s and early 1980s, sunset laws have produced mixed results, and many states have repealed ineffective sunset legislation. Few agencies have been terminated under sunset provisions, in part because agencies develop constituents who do not want the service to end. In addition, the cost of disbanding agencies and reassigning work can be expensive.
Attempts to pass a federal sunset law in the 1990s, which would have required formal reauthorization of federal programs every ten years, were unsuccessful. Advocates of accountability have abandoned the idea of "sunsetting" agencies and have sought to strengthen agency reauthorization requirements by incorporating rigorous performance measurements and enforcing appropriate discipline in government.
In addition to their application to government agencies, sunset provisions have been applied to laws themselves and to benefits, such as immigration benefits. Without reauthorization by the legislature, the law or benefit ceases on a particular date.