Federal agency closes! British embassy celebrates!

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Nobody knows how many federal agencies there are, but the number just went down by one. The Board of Tea Experts is shutting down formally, in response to the Federal Tea Tasters Repeal Act of 1996. It only took 27 years.

The Board of Tea Experts began life with the Tea Importation Act of 1897. It actually pre-dates the modern incarnation of its parent agency, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which didn’t take shape until 1906. The Board’s job was to set standards which imported tea must meet to be allowed into the country. From the start, it was barely disguised protectionism. The 1897 Act also created a Board of Tea Appeals, though it is unclear how many jilted importers bothered going through that process.

The Smithsonian Magazine in 2017 ran an amusing history of federal tea policy. The 1897 Act “aimed to protect consumers from imported tea judged at the time to be ‘little better than hay or catnip.’” Federal tea tasting “had a ritualistic element: weighing the tea, brewing it, pouring it and tasting it,” along with spitting it out afterwards, as wine tasters do. Testers wore white lab coats and tasted a sample from every lot that entered the country. Tea was the only beverage subjected to this requirement.

The Board of Tea Experts lasted for 99 years. It ceased operations in 1996, but the FDA never formally abolished the Board until September 19, 2023. When it closed down in 1996, it had four employees and a budget of about $483,000 in 2023 dollars. By then it had already been under criticism from government waste watchdogs for more than 20 years. It would live on, at least on paper, for another 27 years.

The British embassy in Washington had some fun with this announcement. On Twitter, it reposted CEI’s announcement of the agency’s closure, and added:

In light of this news, all tea for tasting may now be directed to:

British Embassy Washington

3100 Massachusetts Ave NW

There are many other US federal entities that are either dormant or useless. They are unlikely to get the same housekeeping that the Board of Tea Experts got, but there are ways to spur on the process. I suggested one possible reform in a paper for CEI’s #NeverNeeded project in 2020: Automatic sunsets for regulatory agencies.

Under this type of rule, agencies would have charters that expire periodically unless Congress votes to renew them. It’s not as far-fetched an idea as it sounds. The Export-Import Bank already runs on an expiring charter model, as does the International Development Finance Corporation (formerly OPIC, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation).

The State of Texas has a Sunset Advisory Commission for its agencies which as of 2020 had “abolished 41 agencies, consolidated another 51, and had an estimated positive fiscal impact of $1 billion, returning $19 for every $1 spent on Sunset.”

A federal sunset rule for all agencies, or a federal version of the Sunset Advisory Commission, could clean out countless federal cobwebs, saving taxpayer dollars and simplifying the 185,000-page Code of Federal Regulations.