When was the last time you wondered about the Paperwork Reduction Act? Probably never, but if you’re Sam Batkins, you think about it quite a lot.
Batkins is director of regulatory policy at the American Action Forum, a center-right think tank that focuses on the regulatory burden the government imposes on businesses and individuals. And he has long wondered how many different forms Uncle Sam requires people to fill out. So recently, he decided to count them, which is possible by scrolling through online data the Office of Management Budget is required to publish.
Since you’re dying to know – 23,000. That’s the number of forms all the various federal agencies require people to fill out. Some of those are tax forms many of us are familiar with. But there’s also an immense amount of info the government collects on topics ranging from the moisture content of prunes to teen-dating habits to the comfortable and uncomfortable feelings of school kids.
Batkins’ catalogue of government forms reveals that Uncle Sam is either remarkably thorough or alarmingly Big Brotherish, or maybe both. The Paperwork Reduction Act, passed in 1980 and updated in 1995, is supposed to prevent the government from driving citizens insane with endless requests for information. But you probably won’t be surprised to learn there’s more paperwork than ever.
In 1995, Americans spent a combined 6.5 billion hours providing all the info the feds asked for. That rose to 7.1 billion hours in 2000, 7.7 billion hours in 2005 and an estimated 10.8 billion hours this year. In terms of the number of paperwork-compliance hours for every American, here’s a breakdown:
1995: 24.5 hours per person
2000: 25.8 hours per person
2005: 26 hours per person
2016: 33.3 hours per person
So which agency burdens Americans the most? “I always thought the Treasury would have the most forms, because of the IRS,” Batkins says. “But HHS by far has the highest number.” That’s probably because the Dept. of Health and Human Services administers complex health-related programs, with all the attendant forms required to defer liability, document life-and-death information, and create a paper trail in the event of fraud. It also conducts a lot of surveys to find out how well different groups of Americans are doing.
Here’s a breakdown of the total number of forms used by agency:
One reason the paperwork burden has gotten weightier is the raft of new rules passed in 2010, including the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and the Affordable Care Act. But virtually none of that affected the Dept. of Agriculture, which oversees the second-largest inventory of forms. Ag, apparently, gathers data on just about every type of produce farmed in the country, while also tracking personnel employed in industry groups such as the Vidalia Onion Committee and the Hazelnut Marketing Board. And just to cover all bases, there’s both a mid-season and a final macadamia nut processor survey.
Government-haters will no doubt rail against every seemingly trivial program as evidence that Washington wastes trillions in taxpayer dollars. But the biggest categories of spending by far are still defense and social programs that directly benefit people, namely Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. There might be pointless programs in the federal budget, but all told they don’t add up to a large portion of spending.
Besides, one person’s waste is another’s livelihood. “It seems strange you need a form every time you nominate someone to the Vidalia Onion Committee,” says Batkins. “But there’s always a constituency that says it’s not ridiculous.” And that’s the nation this government serves.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.
- Politics & Government
- Paperwork Reduction Act
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