Sunday, May 4, 2014

useless reports

The Washington Post has done a major public service by drawing attention to the numerous reports -- 4,291 by their calculation -- that government agencies currently prepare each year. Even better, they have a searchable database where any of us can look over the list.

The Post overreaches, however, by suggesting that most of those reports are unnecessary and/or never read. The article cites some truly stupid topics -- dog and cat fur -- and reports written into law years ago and never revisited.

I'm in favor of sunsetting every report and of repealing the vast number of current reports after careful review. But please understand how some of these reports get mandated, and the value they serve. More than once my Senate boss or I had a bright idea that we proposed, only to agree to a report on the idea instead of a change in permanent law. At other times, the report was to make the bureaucracy aware that Congress cared about a topic and wanted close supervision of the matter by senior officials.  I noticed, for example, on page 14 of the list of 391 reports the Pentagon is supposed to prepare, the quarterly report on unit readiness that my boss and I wrote into law back in 1977. Of course the data would be gathered in any event, but we thought we should all take regular notice of readiness conditions.

There's another report, based on an amendment by Senator John Warner [R-VA] in 1986 calling for the president to submit an annual report explaining U.S. national security strategy. Recent presidents have submitted only one or two reports a term, and the language is usually so anodyne that they are dismissed as pabulum. But I know from working in the State Department that the interagency process to prepare these reports is valuable for surfacing differences and alternative approaches. I also know that Congress never pays attention to them -- but mainly because no one from the White House is allowed to testify about them because the National Security Adviser is not allowed to testify on the Hill.

The State Department also has to submit a host of reports -- 74 are listed -- that may seem repetitive or useless, on human rights, religious liberty, anti-narcotic programs, and the like. But diplomats have told me that the reporting requirement gives them leverage with foreign governments as they seek some positive evidence so that the country won't be as embarrassed by the report.

I'm sure the total number of reports is far higher than the Post's list, for each year the armed services and appropriations committees ask for one-time reports on current or new programs as part of their regular oversight. Let's prune the list but not jettison it.

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