BREAKING POINTS | 2014 UPDATE
Congress eliminated 48 of the 4,291 mandatory reports that had become a burden on bureaucrats. Then it asked for 70 new ones.
Every year, as required by law, the U.S. government prepares an official report to Congress on Dog and Cat Fur Protection. The task requires at least 15 employees in at least six different federal offices.
First, workers have to gather data about the enforcement of a law banning imports of fur coats, furry toys or other items made from the pelts of pets. How many shipments were checked? How many illegal furs were found?
WHERE GOVERNMENT FALLS APART
Second in a series examining the failures at the heart of troubled federal systems.
The data are written into a report, passed up the chain of command and sent to Capitol Hill.
And then nothing happens.
Although it was Congress that demanded this report in a 2000 law, the legislators who pushed for it are gone. The debate over imported pet fur has waned. Congress lost interest. Of the seven committees that still get copies of the report, none reported finding it useful.
Still, the law lives on, requiring a bureaucratic ritual that has become a complete waste of time.
“I said: ‘Look, let’s just not send it. Let’s just not send it this year and see if anybody asks for it,’ ” said Michael Mullen, a former official at Customs and Border Protection, which handles the report. Mullen said his bosses always said no. “Is that thing still being sent in?” Mullen said, laughing. “Oh, God."
This is a story about how Congress built a black hole.
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.
The circular files of Congress
This Congress is officially expecting 4,291 written reports, from 466 federal agencies and nonprofit groups. Legislators have demanded reports on things as big as Social Security, as small as the House’s employee hair salon and as far afield as the state of Little League baseball.
But as the numbers got bigger, Congress started to lose track. It overwhelmed itself. Today, Congress is not even sure how many of those 4,291 reports are actually turned in. And it does not try to save copies of all the ones that are.
So some agencies cheat and send in nothing. And others waste time and money sending in reports — such as the one on dog and cat fur — that simply disappear into the void.
“Remember the original movie ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ where the ark got put away in that government storeroom?” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who has pushed to cut down on unnecessary reports. “Probably next to the lost ark are all the reports that have never been reviewed.”
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.
“To be honest, a lot of the reports that have been mandated from these federal agencies are so overwhelming that I [didn’t] generally look at them,” said former congressman Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), who served in the House from 1989 until last year. Stearns said his staff often threw the reports away, hoping somebody else would go through them instead. Such hope is not always well founded — many of the reports are not posted where the public can see them.
“If you’re a Republican, you go to the Heritage Foundation, you go to the American Enterprise Institute,” Stearns said. “. . . You almost take the opinion that the outside groups are going to monitor these better than you and your staff can do.”
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), in his office last week, has pushed to reduce the number of reports Congress requires. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
From 300 to thousands
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 total 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.
In the 1990s, Agriculture Department employee David Rust was in charge of completing a report for Congress on how his sub-agency served the public. The first year, he took it seriously. He wrote a polished and well-documented report and sent it off to the Hill.
“Never heard a thing,” Rust recalled in a telephone interview.
The next year, Rust’s boss asked him to do it again. But he didn’t. He sent Congress nothing, and he never heard a thing.
“I killed that, after just one year,” Rust said.
Over time, such congressional reports were becoming a Washington parable about why some big government systems break down.
In cases such as this, the cause is not too little funding or too much corruption or failed technology. It is Congress’s tendency to pile new solutions on top of outdated ones, and to try to make all of them work at once. As a result, funding and energy are spread too thin. Bad ideas live on — sucking in resources — because nobody bothers to kill them.
In one infamous example, the government ended up with 47 job training programs — and still wasn’t very good at job training.
In this case, however, the system that Congress overburdened and broke was its own.
“And at the end of the year, you will see lots and lots of these big kind of mobile trash barrels. And you will see people just throwing away just pounds and pounds of reports into the trash,” said Steve Bell, a longtime staffer for Republicans on Capitol Hill. During the year, he said, “we used them as doorstops. Literally. The thicker ones, we used them as doorstops.”
Today, nobody in Washington can say how many reports are actually done every year, or how much money is spent to prepare them. The last good estimate comes from 1993, when they were believed to cost more than $100 million — $163 million in today’s dollars.
This year, the only thing that Congress could say for sure was how many reports it was expecting to get. In early April, the House administration committee said that official total was 4,637.
But even that was wrong. The Washington Post counted the entries on the House’s list, and the number was more than 300 less than the House said it was. After that, the House administration committee changed its official total to 4,291.
That figure is also probably misleading, since the House’s list of expected reports seems riddled with errors. For one thing, it says Congress is still expecting two annual reports about the Soviet Union, a country that dissolved in 1991. And it still asks for two reports from the association of veterans of the Spanish-American War. The last member of that group died in 1992.
Video: Breaking Points: The congressional black hole
One of the most inefficient things about Congress is the system that's supposed to make it efficient. The Post's David Fahrenthold explains.
The broader breakdown of this system can be seen — in miniature — in the history of that report on dog and cat fur protection. It began life as a well-intentioned idea but then lived long enough to become a farce.
The story of the report began in the late 1990s, when the Humane Society of the United States found that coats, toys and other imported items were being made with the fur of dogs and cats. Often, the animals were cruelly abused before they were killed.
“We want this trade in dog and cats pelts to stop at our borders, and hopefully save millions of animals from this cruel practice,” said then-Sen. William Roth (R-Del.), one of the measure’s supporters.
Congress passed a bill banning the import of dog and cat fur and demanded an annual report on how the law was being enforced. But after a few years, there was not much to say — customs officers reported finding relatively few shipments of contraband fur. In 2012, the government had found just one violation of the law in six years.
But the law says there will be an annual report. This is what that means:
First, according to former customs employees, somebody has to gather data from more than 320 U.S. ports of entry. It can take weeks for them all to report back, with totals of how many searches they made for illegal fur and how much they found. In fiscal 2012, for instance, there were 109 searches of commercial shipments. None of them contained illegal fur.
Then, somebody writes a short report. “If everybody’s reported in — you’ve got all the information together — it probably would be a couple of days” to write it, said Kelly S. Herman, a lawyer who worked on the report years ago.
Then the reviews begin. The report is checked by Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations, its Office of International Trade, its Office of Policy and Planning, and its Office of Congressional Affairs. Then it goes to the deputy commissioner and then the commissioner.
“We used them as doorstops. Literally. The thicker ones, we used them as doorstops.”
—Steve Bell, a longtime staffer for Republicans on Capitol Hill
Everybody is supposed to look closely. After all, this is going to Congress.
“If Congress is asking for this report, then it’s obviously of somebody’s high priority,” said Allen Gina, another former Customs and Border Protection official who worked on the report. And, he said, “there’s nothing more embarrassing than being in a public forum, and somebody says: ‘Thank you for that report you sent me. I have a specific question,’ [when you didn’t review what the report said]. ”
For now, nobody on Capitol Hill seems likely to ask.
“It seems we don’t have anyone that remembers using the report,” said Aryele Bradford, a spokeswoman for the Democrats on the House Oversight Committee.
“Still have not been able to confirm that we have even received the report in the past,” said Sean Bonyun, a spokesman for the Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is supposed to get it every year.
In the past few years, both the Obama administration and several members of Congress have tried to reform this system. In the process, they have demonstrated how hard it is to reform.
In late 2012, the White House identified 269 reports it would like to eliminate. The Dog and Cat Fur Protection report was on that list, along with a few other doozies. The Social Security Administration, for instance, has for more than 25 years sent Congress a long report about its printing operations.
Among other things, the report includes the ages and serial numbers of individual pieces of equipment: a forklift, two copiers, several laminators. The full report takes about 95 employees and 87 workdays to complete.
But why on Earth would Congress want to know the serial number of somebody’s forklift? That was unclear. The senator who asked for the report retired in 1987 and died in 2010.
After the White House put out its list, the Senate’s Warner and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) wrote bills to eliminate some of the least useful reports. (Issa has irritated Obama administration officials with his numerous requests for information, though most are one-time requests, not repeating reports.)
But in the House, some committees objected — they wanted to keep their reports coming.
For instance, that time-consuming Social Security printing report was saved from elimination. But why? Only one committee on Capitol Hill gets the report, the Joint Committee on Printing. A spokeswoman for the Republicans’ side of the committee said they had nothing to do with it; a spokesman for the panel’s top Democrat did not respond to requests for comment this past week.
In the end, last Monday the House passed a bill that would eliminate 79 reports, less than a third of the White House’s list. And, yes, it would get rid of the dog and cat fur report.
Also this year, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) has written a bill that would at least post all the reports on a public Web site so the public can read them.“This information could help other people,” Quigley said. “It could help farmers. It could help businesses.”
When a report comes in now, Quigley said, “it is stored in the abyss.”
Unless, of course, it doesn’t come in at all.
This year, a reporter went looking for one of those obscure reports that the White House had asked to get rid of, a Forest Service report on timber supply and demand in Southeast Alaska. The Forest Service refused to answer questions about it or provide a recent copy.
The reason, apparently, was that there was no recent copy. After the staff of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) asked this year about the report, the Forest Service then said that the employee who did that report had left the agency.
So, for the past two years, they had just stopped doing it.