Few creations last forever. "My days are like an evening shadow," lamented the Psalmist. "I wither away like grass." Among the rare things that do not wither away like grass are congressionally mandated reports from federal agencies and nonprofit organizations, which have a staying power that defies belief as well as good sense.
No fewer than 4,291 of these reports are supposed to be done for the current Congress, coming from 466 bodies. That's nearly twice as many as were required in 1980, according to a recent story in The Washington Post.
People do this, um, work. People who get paid. People who get paid with your tax dollars.
A few of the reports are valuable, eagerly anticipated and carefully studied by the people who make laws. But the rest generally pile up unread until they are hauled off to the dump.
Some don't actually get written, law or no law. "Congress is not even sure how many of those 4,291 reports are actually turned in," reports The Post's David Fahrenthold. In fact, Congress couldn't even count them all. A House committee report in April put the total at 4,637, but after that number was disputed by The Post, it lowered the count. The most recent estimate of the cost, in 1993, was $100 million, or about $163 million in today's money.
Some of the reports turn out to have their uses, even if those uses do not pertain to the information they contain. "We used them as doorstops," one congressional staffer told The Post. "Literally. The thicker ones, we used them as doorstops."
Those might be missed, but most of the others could disappear without anyone feeling a loss. David Rust says that as an Agriculture Department staffer in the 1990s, he was assigned to produce a report on his operation. He did so and sent it to Congress, only to get no response. The next year, he didn't bother, and if anyone even noticed, no one cared. "I killed that, after just one year," he said.
If only it were that easy for all the other civil servants churning out such documents. When Congress prohibited the import of dog and cat fur, the banned practice pretty much disappeared. But the law imposing the ban calls for annual reports, even if there is nothing to say.
So the reports continue. Once completed, they are dutifully shipped off to congressional committees. And then? Then nothing. "Of the seven committees that are supposed to get the report," says The Post, "none use it in their work."
In 2012, the White House recommended eliminating that report, along with 268 others it found dispensable. The House agreed to kill only 79, including the dog and cat fur report.
As for the others, which number more than 4,000? "In many cases, Congress' orders had no expiration date," notes Fahrenthold. "They are due, forever, until somebody repeals the law requiring them."