As Daniel Moynihan once said, “The single most exciting thing you encounter in government is competence, because it is so rare.”
And if you were worried that his words no longer hold true, you need look no further than the list of 4,291 — give or take a few — reports that Congress is expecting this year.
As David Fahrenthold reported this weekend, Congress once had the brilliant idea that it wanted to be informed about things. This was certainly better than the alternative, but the way Congress insisted that this informing happen was that agencies of all shapes and sizes should prepare and shovel great piles of reports onto the legislative body. Gradually the number of reports began to spiral out of control.
It is amazing all the things on which Congress is eagerly expecting reports. Not just news of the veterans of the Spanish-American War, who have all been dead for years now. (Although, if that report does come in, it belongs at the top of the list.) Not just the Panama Canal Commission (that could be legit!) or the Soviet Union (just because it disbanded doesn’t mean that Congress can’t get an annual report about it) or cat and dog fur (the focus of the article).
That just scratches the surface. Here are just a few of the expected reports that I got through before my eyes glazed over and I started to murmur “yes, let action be taken on sub-paragraph (b)” to myself in an ominous tone.
• On the number and nature of calls received on the inspector general hot line
• From the Government Accountability Office, on the “failure of any department or establishment to supply requested books, documents, and papers or records”
• A list of all reports issued by GAO during each calendar month and cumulative list of preceding 12 months (Which raises questions — does this include the report on the reports, or is that report separate? How many reports does the GAO report when the GAO reports reports? As many reports as the GAO reports when the GAO reports reports.)
• Some sort of report from the “Beauty Shop of the House of Representatives.”
• A report offering a “justification for the size of the sample used in order to assure the validity of the estimates used for the survey under this section” (I have no idea what this one is or what any of the words in it mean.)
• “To notify Congress of the change and describe the reasons for the change in the biosafety level at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center,” whenever there is a change made to the biosafety level at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center
• Annually: Certification that no person or persons with direct or indirect responsibility for administering the executive office of the President’s Drug Free Workplace Plan are themselves subject to a program of individual random drug testing (does Congress really need to hear about this?)
• “Certification that a shrimp harvesting nation has adopted a regulatory program governing the incidental taking of certain sea turtles.”
• “Certification that an open and free multiparty national or regional election has taken place in order to provide funds to support the process of democratic transition in East European countries and Yugoslavia,” the second of which is definitely a country that still exists now.
• “Report on the potential threats facing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the first decade of the next millennium” (Which is now A.D. 3000? It is good that our government is so prepared and forward-thinking.)
• Annual report from Mines and Mining on “all pertinent public information relating to minerals in Alaska gathered by Federal agencies”
• In the area of national security, “A written explanation of the reasons for such the determination that the applications of subsection (a), (b) and (d) would have a substantial adverse impact on the protection of homeland security” to be delivered “Should the President determine that the applications of subsection (a), (b) and (d) would have a substantial adverse impact on the protection of homeland security.” (It is possible, of course, that those subsections actually contain something Congress wants to know about. I just put this in to give you a sense of the kind of writing style involved.)
• Any time someone certifies that it is in the national interest not to transfer funds available under the Compact of Free Association to the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall islands to accounts for payments to owners of seized fishing vessels, Congress is going to get a report with the “Basis for certification that it is in the national interest not to transfer funds available under the Compact of Free Association to the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands to accounts for payment to owners of seized fishing vessels.”
“HOO BOY,” Mitch McConnell says, rubbing his hands together. “You know how excited you are for Winds of Winter? That is just how excited I am to hear whether the applications of subsection (a), (b) and (d) would have a substantial adverse impact on the protection of homeland security, should the president determine that. . . .” (McConnell begins to twitch uncontrollably, and the other members hasten to remove him from the premises lest the attending physician be called in, since the office of attending physician has to write an annual report to Congress, too.)
It is not to say that all of these reports are useless. As those on the Hill readily admit, some of them make great doorstops.