The questions facing Congress are relatively simple. How well has the Paperwork Reduction Act, a law with a motherhood-and-apple pie title, worked? And what should be done now that it's up for reauthorization?
The answers coming in amount to cacophony. A sampling:
* The law has worked well, although there's always more it could do. This view is held by, among others, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Association of Broadcasters and the Business Advisory Council on Federal Reports, the virtual father of the act.
* It hasn't worked at all. The flood of federal forms is getting worse. This view was expressed repeatedly by heads of small businesses at recent Small Business Administration hearings around the country.
* It's worked too well, eliminating information vital to industry. Spokesmen for the American Meat Institute and the American Trucking Associations regret the loss of information that they say was useful in understanding their markets and keeping track of competitors.
* It's been subverted by the Office of Management and Budget, which took money intended to corral stray federal paperwork and spent it in the more visible arena of regulatory relief. This is the complaint of some congressional staffers and the General Accounting Office, which helped draft the law.
The law's purpose was simple enough: reduce the time businesses, local governments and individuals spend telling the federal government about their occupations, earnings, employes, pension plans, affirmative action plans, crude oil reserves, trucking routes, broadcasting operations, industrial emissions and merger plans, among other things.
To do this, the OMB created a unit of measurement, the paperwork "burden hour," to measure the time the average citizen would have to spend on a form. It then calculated the total paperwork burden, agency by agency. Not surprisingly, the Treasury Department, whose 1040 tax forms go to every federal taxpayer, won the sweepstakes among the agencies.
Between fiscal 1980 and 1983, the OMB estimates, by simplifying some forms, eliminating others, reducing the size of samples and the frequencies of surveys and increasing the use of computers, the total number of burden hours was reduced at least 29 percent. The law called for a 25 percent reduction.
Among the forms that now are simpler or sent out less often are Agriculture Department surveys on meat production (prompting the meat institute's Dewey Bond to say that production information is now available so late that it does his membership no good), truck drivers' logs required by the Transportation Department, some Interstate Commerce Commission forms, the 1040 (which now has a 1040EZ sidekick) and the broadcasters' license renewal forms, which have been reduced to postcard size.
"Very definitely, it's worked," said Hugh Brady of the NAM. Even if the burden-hour statistics are imperfect, he said, "there is some direct correlation between the enjoyment of the private sector and the government calculation of burden-hour reduction."
But the SBA's hearings prompted new complaints from officials of small businesses and their accountants, who say any paperwork burden is regressive, hurting small businesses more than their larger brethren.
Procurement forms are always a problem. "You have to be crazy to want to sell to the federal government," said one SBA employe.
Sally Douglas of the National Federal of Independent Businesses says that she has also receives vociferous complaints about a twice-a-decade business census form. The form, which seeks detailed economic information, provokes complaints partly because it arrives in January, when business owners are coping with employes' tax and withholding forms as well as their own income tax forms.
The instructions give businesses until Feb. 15 to file the form (one long page in the case of service, retail and wholesale firms, multiple pages for manufacturers). It threatens a $500 penalty for not complying and a $10,000 penalty for providing inaccurate information. Some business officials said that it cost them more than $500 to compile the necessary information.
Census officials say that they have streamlined the form since 1977 and worked with business and accounting groups to tailor it to individual businesses, which can use estimated responses. Firms with few employes are sampled at a low rate.
"We try to soft-pedal the penalties," which are set by law, "as much as we can and stress the cooperative nature of the effort," said Bobby Russell of the Census Bureau, adding that the information is essential in compiling such basic information as the gross national product. The forms are being returned at a higher rate than in 1978, he said.
Within the federal government, the focus of the debate among paperwork aficionados is whether the OMB has been diligent enough in overseeing form-cutting and related issues, such as establishing the Federal Information Locater System (FILS), a central reference service designed to tell a bureaucrat if wanted information exists at another agency.
FILS was supposed to be in place by the end of 1982. A prototype now exists, said the OMB's Robert Bedell, and it should be in full operation by September.
Bedell is more concerned with a House committee's proposed restrictions on paperwork money and its call for further reductions in paperwork. Bedell said the bill's requirement of a separate accounting of paperwork expenses "would be very troublesome" to the OMB. He is negotiating this point with committee staffers. He is also trying to persuade Congress to halve the bill's 10 percent requirement for further paperwork reduction next year.
"We've already gotten out the easy stuff," he said. "Now it's going to be harder."