While the federal government spends more than $80 million sending 4,000 reports about itself to Congress, no one in government has an overall fix on who is supposed to report to whom about what, according to the General Accounting Office's most recent report on the federal government's reports.

The GAO, which itself spends some $5 million annually sending about 1,000 reports to Capitol Hill, said that the confusion stems in part from the variety of agencies that share responsibility for tracking reports, and in part from the statutes passed by Congress that call for reports but give only vague deadlines like "from time to time."

GAO said the problem is exacerbated by the tendency of reports to multiply: Congress set out a modest 197 reporting requirements in 1930; by 1960 the figure was 470; by 1980 it had grown to 1,566. "The numbers," GAO reports, "appear to correspond closely to the growth in federal government programs and activities . . . And the desire of Congress to hold agencies accountable . . . "

The required reports range from the National Climate Program's Act requirement that the Commerce Secretary report annually on the program's achievements to a requirement that the Secretary of Defense tell Congress whenever the department plans to spend more than $175,000 on a facility for Reserve units.

Some 94 percent of the reports come from the executive branch, with 54 percent of the total coming from Cabinet-level agencies and another 28.6 from other "principal agencies" like the Environmental Protection Agency. About four-fifths of them went to the authorizing committees--the various agencies' legislative godfathers--in the House and Senate.

But more than three-quarters of the reports come in at least a month after the legal deadline; half of them, in fact, are more than six months late. And those are just the ones GAO knows about. As the watchdog agency says, "Congress cannot determine whether all required reports are submitted because it does not have a complete or central listing of all the reporting requirements."

It doesn't have a complete list, GAO added, because three separate organizations develop their own lists--GAO itself, the Clerk of the House and the secretary of the Senate. And the three don't always agree.

So, GAO says, these three groups should figure out together what reports are called for and when they're due, keep an eye on them, and get congressional committees to birddog agencies that miss their deadlines and get committee feedback about whether the reports were useful or not.