WASHINGTON — Every year, as required by law, the US government prepares an official report to Congress on ‘‘Dog and Cat Fur Protection.’’ The task requires at least 15 employees in at least six different federal offices.
First, workers have to gather data about the enforcement of a law banning imports of fur coats, furry toys, or other items made from the pelts of pets. How many shipments were checked? How many illegal furs were found?
The data are written into a report, passed up the chain of command, and sent to Congress.
And then nothing happens.
Although it was Congress that demanded this report in a 2000 law, the legislators who pushed for it are gone. The debate on imported pet fur has waned. Congress lost interest. Of the seven committees that still get copies of the report, none reported finding it useful.
Still, the law lives on, requiring a bureaucratic ritual that has become a waste of time.
‘‘I said: ‘Look, let’s just not send it. Let’s just not send it this year and see if anybody asks for it,’ ‘‘ said Michael Mullen, a former official at Customs and Border Protection, which handles the report. Mullen said his bosses always said no. ‘‘Is that thing still being sent in?’’ Mullen said, laughing. ‘‘Oh, God.’’
This is a story about how Congress built a black hole.
It started with a good idea. Legislators wanted to know more about the bureaucracy working beneath them. So they turned to a tool as old as bureaucracy itself — the interoffice memo. They asked agencies to send in written reports about specific things they were doing.
Then, as happens in government, that good idea was overused until it became a bad one.
This Congress is expecting 4,291 written reports, from 466 federal agencies and nonprofit groups. Legislators have demanded reports on things as big as Social Security, as small as the House’s employee hair salon, and as far afield as the state of Little League baseball.
But as the numbers got bigger, Congress started to lose track. It overwhelmed itself. Today, Congress is not even sure how many of those 4,291 reports are actually turned in. And it does not try to save copies of all the ones that are.
So some agencies cheat and send in nothing. And others waste time and money sending in reports — such as the one on dog and cat fur — that simply disappear into the void.
This is a modern problem, made out of a very old thing. As far back as 1792, when Congress was still meeting in Philadelphia, it ordered the US Mint to produce an annual report, to ‘‘be laid before Congress for their information.’’
Today, the process works like this: First, Congress passes a law with detailed instructions for a report and a timeline for when it ought to be turned in. Some reports are due every year. But not all of them. In fact, Congress has asked for reports on 1,307 distinct schedules. The due dates range from” monthly’’ to ‘‘within 60 days after close of the fiscal year’’ to ‘‘from time to time.’’
When they are ready, the reports are sent to Capitol Hill. Some go on paper, by courier. Others are sent by e-mail. (Only a small number of the reports are classified as secret.)
The reports are not all useless. Many reports are quite valuable and well read, such as the ones on Medicare’s finances and on the Pentagon’s assessment of the war in Afghanistan.
The problem is that there is no system to sort the good ones from the useless ones. They all flow in together, which makes it hard for congressional staffers to spot any valuable information hidden in the flood.