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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A breakdown of the required reports
How long have agencies been mandated to create these reports?
50 to 59
40 to 49
30 to 39
20 to 29
10 to 19
5 to 9
“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.
of current law
Data are gathered
Report is written
Report to Congress
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.