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Congress Orders Thousands Of Reports It Never Reads

United States Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. Aerial

Every year, government agencies produce reports ordered by Congress that nobody ever bothers to read:

It started out with a good idea. Legislators wanted to know more about the bureaucracy working beneath them. So they turned to a tool as old as bureaucracy itself — the interoffice memo. They asked agencies to send in written reports about specific things they were doing.

Then, as happens in government, that good idea was overused until it became a bad one.

It started out with a good idea. Legislators wanted to know more about the bureaucracy working beneath them. So they turned to a tool as old as bureaucracy itself — the interoffice memo. They asked agencies to send in written reports about specific things they were doing.

Then, as happens in government, that good idea was overused until it became a bad one.

(…)

This is a modern problem, made out of a very old thing. As far back as 1792, when Congress was still meeting in Philadelphia, it ordered the U.S. Mint to produce an annual report, to “be laid before Congress for their information.”

Today, the process works like this: First, Congress passes a law with detailed instructions for a report and a timeline for when it ought to be turned in. Some reports are due every year. But not all of them. In fact, Congress has asked for reports on 1,307 distinct schedules. The due dates range from “monthly” to “within 60 days after close of the fiscal year” to “from time to time.”

When they are ready, the reports are sent to Capitol Hill. Some go on paper, by courier. Others are sent by e-mail. (Only a small number of the reports are classified as secret.)

The reports are not all useless. Many reports are quite valuable and well read, such as the ones on Medicare’s finances and on the Pentagon’s assessment of the war in Afghanistan.

The problem is that there is no system to sort the good ones from the useless ones. They all flow in together, which makes it hard for congressional staffers to spot any valuable information hidden in the flood.

(…)

For decades, legislators have complained that they get more reports than they can reasonably sort through. In 1928, for example, there were 303 reports. And Congress thought that was already too many.

“Why do you not abolish 300 of them and leave three?” Rep. Fiorello La Guardia (R-N.Y.) said on the House floor. That year, legislators wound up cutting 128 reports.

But their victory over paperwork did not last. As decades went on, the number of reports began to grow again. By 1960, there were 470 reports required. By 1970, there were 759.

The numbers grew for two main reasons. The first was entirely noble. In many cases, legislators were pursuing the goal of better oversight, keeping watch on the money they were spending. As government has expanded over the past 50 years, they have needed more reports to keep track.

The other reason was less noble. Congress ordered reports to shut somebody up.

In these cases, legislators allowed colleagues to order reports on pet problems as a way of pacifying them.

“Everyone can get a little bit of satisfaction [out of requesting a report], but the Senate’s not getting dragged into a drawn-out debate on whatever the issue is,” said Jim Manley, a former longtime aide to Senate Democrats. “Once you request a study, you don’t really have to pay attention to the details — such as how much it’s going to cost to put together a study.”

The problem was that, in many cases, Congress’s orders had no expiration date. Legally, these reports are immortal. They are due, forever, until somebody repeals the law requiring them. So new reports were added, old ones stayed on and the totof al number kept growing.

By 1980, there were 2,300 reports required. By 1990, there were 3,448.

Along the way, federal auditors warned Congress that it was losing oversight of its own oversight system. “There is no way of insuring that the agencies . . . submit reports when they are due,” auditors said in 1981.

Throughout the government, crafty bureaucrats began to notice the same thing. Nobody was checking the homework.\

There’s much more at the link, but the story should be a familiar one to anyone  who’s experienced the workings of bureaucracy, especially at the government level. Since Congress is now ordering so many reports that it couldn’t keep track of them, bureaucrats quickly figured out that it didn’t necessarily matter if they missed deadline, submitted a report that didn’t really consist of anything substantive, or not didn’t even submit the report at all. Since there’s nobody out there actually checking the work, the incentive to actually do the work quickly disappears.

The linked article goes on to note that we don’t even know at this point how much it’s costing the government to produce these reports. The last estimate was made more than 20 years ago, and put the number at $100 million. In today’s dollars, that would be around $163 million, but that doesn’t take into account the additional costs that have been incurred due to yet more reports being required by Congress. A large part of that cost, of course, will be due to printing costs from the Government Printing Office, an expensive which just seems entirely unnecessary in an era where PDF files of documents can be emailed easily and stored on computer servers for a fraction of the cost of the paper, ink, and other costs related to printing. In addition, there’s simply the opportunity cost incurred by the fact that thousands of government employees must be involved in preparing these reports to begin with. Granted, these people are going to be paid in any event, but the time they take to compile the data for, and prepare, these mandated reports takes away from time they can devote to other, presumably more productive, projects. At the end of the day, it may not be possible to calculate the true costs that all of these seemingly unnecessary reports are imposing on the Federal Government.

As with many things that Congress does, this mess started out with a noble intention, in this case to aid Congress in its oversight responsibilities. However, ordering a report doesn’t really amount to oversight if nobody bothers to read it, or if so many reports are submitted that nobody has either the time or the energy to comprehend their contents. More often than not, then, these government reports seem to have turned into Congress’s way of saying that they are addressing an issue without actually addressing it. Of course, there probably is a rational solution to all of this, but given that government bureaucracy operates mostly on inertia, it seems unlikely that anything will actually be done about it. Instead, the reports, to the extent they are even being prepared, will continue to pile up in a room somewhere in the Capitol Building just waiting for someone to read them.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Tyrell says:

    This is typical of government – military, education, highway dept., judicial, etc. What you have is someone who was booted upstairs so they think up all kinds of paperwork to justify their job. Nothing new or surprising here at all. Been that way and will continue that way.
    I wonder if anyone ever read “Why children fall off tricycles”, the results of that infamous government funded study carried out at some university.
    “Your tax dollars at work”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 5

  2. DrDaveT says:

    @Tyrell:

    What you have is someone who was booted upstairs

    They’re called ‘Congressmen’, and you the voters did the booting.

    I wonder if anyone ever read “Why children fall off tricycles”, the results of that infamous government funded study carried out at some university.

    You’re confusing two very different things here. This article is about Congressionally-mandated reports to be prepared by the Executive Branch for the Congress. That has nothing to do with federally-disbursed research grants through DOD, DOE, NSF, NIH, CDC, NIST, etc. Those funds turn into academic publications, which are actually read by people in those fields, or into R&D pilot projects that actually produce hardware and software. If the work is crap, that’s a self-correcting problem, because those people won’t be getting any new grants.

    (And, speaking as someone who once worked with a very smart engineer who was studying why and how dizzy people fall down, I suspect there may have been a lot more meat to the infamous tricycle study than is apparent to a watchdog with an axe to grind…)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Well of course they don’t read them. They aren’t reports to read. They’re reports to file and to check off a list that has an item “Report Written/Printed”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  4. Tyrell says:

    @Dave Schuler: Typical. There are apparently a lot of things that they do in Washington that they do not get around to reading. Bills, laws, regulations, procedures.
    "We have to pass the bill so we can find out what is in it" (Pelosi)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  5. rudderpedals says:
  6. alkali says:

    The linked article goes on to note that we don’t even know at this point how much it’s costing the government to produce these reports. … A large part of that cost, of course, will be due to printing costs from the Government Printing Office …

    I suspect this is very likely not so. The cost of generating written work product is orders of magnitude greater than the cost of printing it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  7. beth says:

    @Tyrell: I’m not really sure this is just a Washington/government type thing. I remember working for a company and having to send numerous silly reports to the corporate office in another state. My interactions with them led me to believe that few, if any, of the reports were really read. I think it’s just gotten worse with the use of spreadsheet programs – it’s fairly easy to compile reports on nearly everything.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  8. beth says:

    @DrDaveT: When I was a kid, I remember having a big, tall, metal tricycle that tipped over easily. All of my friends had the same one – it was the basic model they made back then. When my daughter was little, they seemed to have moved to the lower, plastic Hot Wheels type of trike which you’d practically have to pick up and turn over to get it to flip. Maybe the research had something to do with that – you never know. It may have saved some kids brain injuries along the way.

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  9. Console says:

    I read my agency’s annual report about operational staffing. It gives me an idea of the big picture… or at least the picture they currently want to portray to Congress.

    That’s really the main benefit. There is lots of public record about government agencies out there and that helps with transparency. Congress isn’t the only people that can use this information.

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  10. Gromitt Gunn says:

    This is hardly limited to government – it is a problem endemic to any beauracracy – governmental, corporate, non-profit, higher education. I worked for a company a number of years ago that never stopped running any reports once they were requested. There was a table on each floor of our nine-story office building for the reports. Every morning, someone from the print room would show up with reams of paper and drop it off on the table.

    An hour later, various employees would go and pick up what they needed from the table. It amounted to roughly 20% of what was dropped off. The rest was some query or metric or report that *somebody* had requested at some point in time, but there was no mechanism in the system to request an end date or a renewal date on reports.

    On Friday afternoon, the same guys that dropped them off every morning would go back around with giant recylce bins and scoop up the 80% of the paper that wasn’t wanted or needed by anyone. Whether or not any of it actually made it to a recycling center, or just got dumped in with the trash is anybody’s guess.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    @Gromitt Gunn:

    I agree with what Gromitt Gunn, above, wrote and have experienced the same thing myself. I’d only add one thing: none of that is exculpatory.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  12. grumpy realist says:

    @Tyrell: You think that this happens only in government? HA!

    You poor fool. Large companies are at least as good at generating mindless material.

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