The biggest waste of time and money in Washington

Eric Pianin
The U.S. Capitol Building.
Mbell | Moment Open | Getty Images

Congress has taken a lot of heat for spinning its wheels and producing little of substance over the past few years.

Last year, the notorious 113th Congress passed just 55 substantive pieces of legislation that were signed into law – arguably one of the least productive performances in history. Lawmakers appear on track to repeat that showing this year amid election-year partisan gridlock.

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Now we learn that this congressional inaction extends to the vast array of studies and reports from federal agencies that Congress has mandated over the years.

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While 466 federal agencies are on the hook to produce 4,291 written reports this year, most of those documents will gather dust on lawmakers' book shelves or simply be tossed out with the trash, according to The Washington Post on Sunday.

These reports range from matters as important as Social Security, the armed forces and the environment to the House's employee hair salon and the state of Little League Baseball.

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Among the more absurd exercises: The Social Security Administration has for more than 25 years sent Congress a lengthy annual report about its printing operations – including the ages and serial numbers of individual pieces of equipment, such as fork lifts and copying machines.

And since 2000, the U.S. government has prepared an annual report on the enforcement of an obscure law that bans the imports of fur coats, furry toys or items made from the pelts of pets. The law itself is noble in nature. But in a time of government fiscal belt-tightening, it is hard to justify deploying at least 15 employees in at least six different federal offices to prepare the "Dog and Cat Fur Protection" report.

Not surprisingly, practically nobody on the Hill bothers to read it.

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"Remember the original movie 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' where the ark got put away in that government storeroom?" Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) told The Post. "Probably next to the lost ark are all the reports that have never been reviewed."

Lawmakers in both parties frequently complain about wasteful government spending, and yet over the years they have exacerbated the problem by peppering agencies with requests for often meaningless or make-work reports.

For sure, the overall cost of these often futile exercises is not big by Washington standards. The last good estimate - dating back to 1993 – was roughly $100 million, or $163 million in today's dollars. Still, the government bureaucracy frequently must devote considerable manpower to highly dubious tasks.

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In the past few years, the Obama administration and several members of Congress, including Senator Warner, have tried to streamline or reform the reporting system, according to The Post. In late 2012, the White House identified 269 reports it would like to eliminate.

Not surprisingly, the Dog and Cat Fur Protection report was among them.

By Eric Pianin of the Fiscal Times