U.S. declared war on red tape in 1980 and seems to be losing

April 05, 1993|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- From Florence, Ariz., another interested taxpayer takes a break from filling out Form 1040 and puts pen to paper with some frank advice for his government:

"To: Office of (Mis)Management and Budget

"Paperwork Reduction Project (ha ha)

"Get someone on the job who knows what the word reduction means.

"Abolish 99.9 percent of government forms because close to 100 percent of them serve no purpose except to keep government paper shufflers busy.

"Yours truly,

"T. A. Colburn."

A furious scrawl on a torn page of note paper, Mr. Colburn's letter tops the heap of recent mail to this obscure Washington office. Here, some 60 public servants are implementing the Paperwork Reduction Act, a 13-year-old experiment in governmental self-control with a decidedly mixed record.

Like Mr. Colburn, most people who have heard of the Paperwork Reduction Act at all probably glimpsed the notice in the instructions for Form 1040 or on some other tax form, explaining the form's purpose and giving optimistic estimates of the time it takes to complete.

Launched with naive enthusiasm in 1980, the act was aimed at cutting the burden imposed on the public by federal paperwork. The chief target was the myriad tax forms of the Internal Revenue Service, but the act covers every single federal form, every application, survey or questionnaire that will be filled out by 10 or more people.

Like inspectors on an assembly line, the paperwork police at the Office of Management and Budget would pluck out frivolous requests for information before they could annoy a single citizen.

Sounds simple. But here's the bottom line: The government declared this war on red tape in 1980 because federal agencies were imposing a staggering 1.5 billion hours of paperwork a year on the people. In 1992, after more than a decade of Paperwork Reduction, the burden had climbed to 6.7 billion hours.

That is enough to keep more than 3 million people occupied full time all year. In other words, if all the nation's federal paperwork were assigned to Maryland -- terrifying notion -- the state's entire work force of 2.6 million people could not get it done.

"The law has not been terribly successful," Sen. John Glenn, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, told his colleagues March 3 with considerable understatement. He is proposing a new, improved version.

The fact is, nearly all proposed paperwork makes it past the reducers. In 1991, OMB disapproved less than 2 percent of forms submitted, and agencies voluntarily withdrew another 3 percent. And of that 5 percent, many forms were subsequently revised and approved.

Yet this modest shave-and-haircut requires an extensive bureaucracy of its own. Every agency, however small, has staffers preparing paperwork to defend its proposed paperwork.

Bogus numbers

Paperwork Reduction Project officials, who will speak to the media only on background, insist that they are the brakes on the federal paperwork machine, which might just run out of control without them. But sometimes they seem more like an odometer, cataloging rather than controlling the red tape.

The February 1993 compilation of all approved paperwork, the paperwork bible, is a tribute to governmental good intentions thicker than two Baltimore phone books.

From the Federal Highway Administration comes the "Outdoor Advertising and Junkyard Report," requiring 52 public responses totaling 6,526 hours of public time. The Defense Department offers "Prisoner of War Medal Application" -- 140,000 responses, but a mere 23,333 hours.

The Federal Aviation Administration lists the rather alarming "Alcohol Misuse Prevention Program for Personnel Engaged in Specified Activities." Inexplicably, it says 23,862 responses will require only one hour of public time.

Actually, OMB officials argue, while paperwork has grown, the law is not so ineffective as the total paperwork numbers suggest. Back in 1980, they say, the paperwork total was grossly underestimated -- partly because agencies were not reporting all their forms, and partly because they were understating the hours required to complete them.

An IRS consultant, for instance, calculated that Americans were really taking three times longer to complete tax forms than the agency had estimated. In 1988, when the agency adopted the new numbers, the federal paperwork burden increased 3.4 billion hours in a single stroke.

Such titanic revisions do not give one faith in the precision of the federal paperwork estimates.

And indeed, one congressional aide intimately familiar with the act and its workings calls the burden estimates "completely bogus." Of these numbers, published annually in an elaborate "Information Collection Budget" for the White House and Congress, he says: "Only the irresponsible media would repeat them."

Expanding bureaucracy

The seminal German sociologist Max Weber identified bureaucracy at the turn of the century as the most important feature of modern society. And among its characteristics, he said, was constant expansion.

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