The circular files

For decades, Congress has been trying to keep track of the federal bureaucracy by mandating that agencies turn in written reports about their work. By now, legislators have asked for far more reports than they can keep track of — Congress has identified 4,291 reports that are required from hundreds of agencies across government, and even private groups.

Some reports are never turned in. Others, such as the “Dog and Cat Fur Protection” report, are still prepared and sent, even though Congress does not need them anymore. Some are ignored and wind up in the trash.
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377 reports

4,291 reports

1920

1930

1940

1950

1960

1970

1980

1990

2000

2014

A breakdown of the required reports

Judicial branch
34 reports
Executive
branch
662
Independent agencies, boards or commissions
751
Legislative branch
300
Executive office and cabinet-level departments
57
Private corporations
(federally chartered)
194
Cabinet level
2,293 reports
Armed Forces
222 reports
Other,
Miscellaneous
326 reports
Audit
200 reports
Health and Medical Care
231 reports
Foreign Relations and Policy
217 reports
Annually
1,394 reports
In each case
139 reports
Bienially
122 reports
Due
108

Search for reports by topic or agency:

How long have agencies been mandated to create these reports?

More than
60 years

50 to 59
years

40 to 49
years

30 to 39
years

20 to 29
years

10 to 19
years

5 to 9
years

Less than
5 years

1

138

250

609

1,021

753

892

185

“Dog and Cat Protection” report

A 1950 law requires the District to report about public safety and emergency preparedness.

Sixty-one federally chartered private corporations, such as Little League Baseball, submit financial audit reports.

The “Trade Act of 1974” requires 19 reports.

Inspector generals from 60 agencies must submit semiannual reports about their office’s activities.

Since 1988, 35 reports are about competitiveness of American industry and foreign trade.

The 1999 National Defense Authorization Act calls for 43 reports.

The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires 99 reports.

Thirty-one reports relate to military, homeland security and defense activities.

The Dog and Cat Fur Protection report

This annual report, which was mandated by law in 2000, seems to have outlived Congress’s interest in the topic. It takes at least 15 employees, in at least six federal offices, to create. It is meant to update legislators about the enforcement of a ban on imports of products made from the fur of dogs and cats. It goes to seven congressional committees, and none said they find it useful. This is what it takes to create the nine-page report, which is only one of the thousands of reports, some more than 100 pages, that are sent to Congress.

2012 cover
page

Two-page
foreword

Executive
summary

Table of
contents

Restating
of current law

Historical
context

Data
analysis

Two-sentence
conclusion

Data are gathered

Report is written

Official review

Higher-level review

Report to Congress

Nothing happens

Local customs offices send in statistics about their efforts to check incoming shipments for illegal dog and cat fur. In 2012, for instance, they reported 109 searches looking for dog and cat fur, and five laboratory tests on specific hair samples.

Staffers at Customs and Border Protection headquarters compiles those numbers into a formal report.

The report is then approved by the assistant commissioner for international trade and sent also to an official in charge of congressional relations. Finally, it is approved by the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.

The report is passed along to CBP’s parent agency, where it is reviewed before being sent to Congress

The report arrives at Congress in paper form, and is passed to seven committees

Of the seven committees that are supposed to get the report, two said they didn’t use it. Five others said they weren’t even certain they received it.

SOURCE: Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, Government Printing Office and Library of Congress.

NOTE: The Washington Post could identify the age of only 3,849 reports.

Graphic: Todd Lindeman, Kevin Schaul, Ben Chartoff and David Fahrenthold. Published: May 3, 2014.