- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Cutting government waste and stimulating jobs involve “hard choices,” if President Obama is to be believed. The choices are not so hard, however, when one is less concerned about preserving the status quo. Take the federal government’s obsession with paperwork, surveys and forms. The Office of Management and Budget has 8,871 of these certified federal “collection instruments.” As a result, we’re stuck wasting 9,824,120,791 hours each year filling them out.

This busywork is the equivalent of a full-time work force 4.9 million strong doing nothing but filling out government paperwork - not to mention the millions of career civil servants required to process the information. All told, it sucks an estimated $60 billion in annual productivity out of the economy, but how much of this is actually necessary?

The Government Accountability Office last week took a closer look at the reporting burdens that the Federal Communications Commission imposes on the private companies it regulates. Excluding consumer complaint forms, the FCC used 385 collection instruments that required an estimated 18,236,785 hours to complete. That’s the equivalent of dedicating 9,118 full-time workers to serving the information needs of one comparably tiny government agency.

FCC form 396, for example, asks every broadcast television and radio station manager to submit a detailed account of the company’s equal employment opportunity program. The report must discuss how, with the “cooperation of labor unions,” the EEO policy will be disseminated to employees. Each station also must explain how it intends to “attract qualified job applicants” under the EEO policy. The FCC says this form will take an hour to complete.

Internet service providers wish they had it so easy. They must fill out form 477, which collects data on how many customers have high-speed internet connections, how many are still on dial-up, average download speeds and so many other questions that a 64-page explanatory tutorial is provided along with the form. The FCC insists it takes just 72 hours to fill in the required answers. The company employees who actually have to fill it out suggest it’s more like 720 hours.

There is an alternative. While it’s nice and maybe interesting to nail down the exact number of individuals who chose not to have a wire-line telephone, collecting data of this sort is hardly an essential federal mission. Let’s get the government out of the survey business and save ourselves the billions of dollars wasted on generating reports that do little more than gather dust on bureaucratic shelves.

Of course, when speaking of forms, we cannot fail to mention the worst culprit of all: the Internal Revenue Service. Our incomprehensible tax code has spawned 907 forms that shackle Americans to 7.5 billion hours of form-filling drudgery each year. The economy loses an estimated $29 billion in productivity as a result. Fundamental tax reform, such as a flat tax, would ditch the hated 1040 in favor of a postcard-sized form that would require a fraction of the time and aggravation to complete.

Members of Congress are quick to legislate the reports and tax loopholes that are responsible for creating the current paperwork mess, but the reports never go away - even after they have lost their usefulness. Ditching the useless forms would not just pay off in economic benefits, it would save some forests as well.