Elizabeth Dorssom, Lincoln University of Missouri – Why Do Legislatures Use Sunset Provisions?

Why do legislatures use sunset provisions?

Elizabeth Dorssom, assistant professor of political science at Lincoln University of Missouri, delves into this question.

Dr. Elizabeth Dorssom is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lincoln University of Missouri. Dr. Dorssom’s research focuses on the impact of resources on politics and policy. Specifically, I am interested in understanding how resources such as information, institutionalization, and professionalism impact policy adoption and feedback.

Why Do Legislatures Use Sunset Provisions?

President Biden’s State of the Union speech brought attention to Senator Rick Scott’s (R-FL) plan that “All federal legislation sunset in five years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.”

What exactly are sunset provisions, and why are they used? Sunset provisions are clauses embedded in legislation that will result in a law ceasing to exist after a specified time frame.

In my research I analyze the impact of legislative institutionalization on policy adoption by examining the use of sunset provisions in the colonial and early state legislatures from 1757 to 1795. As legislatures institutionalize — increased pay, members serving longer, more legislative activity, and experienced leadership, they are less likely to use sunset provisions. I examine the rate of sunset provision use across the legislatures of the 13 original colonies and early states during a period in which these legislatures were still undergoing the institutionalization process.

I find that the use of sunset provisions decreased as the legislatures institutionalized. Legislatures passing more laws are 2 percent less likely to pass laws with sunset provisions. Paid legislatures are 37 percent less likely to use sunset provisions. The results suggest that less institutionalized, less professional legislatures are more uncertain about the policy outcomes, which results in more laws with sunset provisions. Modern legislatures in the United States are institutionalized, so sunset provisions are a relatively rare phenomenon.

Overall, the weight of the evidence suggests that institutionalization has a negative impact on the rate of sunset provisions. These results demonstrate that less institutionalized, less professional legislatures face greater uncertainty about the outcomes of public policies. As legislatures institutionalize, legislative uncertainty regarding policies decreases, and they pass fewer laws with sunset provisions. Therefore, sunset provisions are used by legislatures as a means to mitigate legislative uncertainty.

Read More:
[Wiley Online Library] – Does Legislative Institutionalization Impact Policy Adoption? New Evidence from the Colonial and Early State Legislatures 1757–1795