Feds Losing Paper Chase

WASHINGTON (04/18/2000) - Congress wanted to know how well federal agencies are carrying out the 1995 Paperwork Reduction Act, so the General Accounting Office wrote a 20-page report. You don't have to read between the lines to learn that results are not good.

The act called for a 30 percent decrease by 1999 in the amount of paperwork required by federal agencies and government regulations. Computers, online transactions and automation were supposed to help. Instead, the hours Americans spend filling out forms and filing documents for the federal government increased by about 3 percent.

The paperwork burden grew by 233 million hours in 1999 alone -- nearly an extra hour for every American.

Most of the blame -- 203 million hours' worth -- goes to the Internal Revenue Service, said Nancy Kingsbury, acting assistant comptroller general at GAO. IRS officials blame Congress for the increase. Laws such as the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 and the Tax and Trade Relief Extension Act of 1998 require more paperwork, they said.

Rep. David McIntosh (R-Indiana) blamed the Office of Management and Budget.

"The Paperwork Reduction Act requires OMB to be the...government's watchdog on paperwork," he said, but OMB has "failed to push the [IRS] and other agencies to cut existing paperwork burdens."

Charles Rossotti, IRS commissioner, said the tax agency has tried to eliminate paperwork for millions of taxpayers by letting them file their taxes electronically, he told the House Government Reform Committee's National Economic Growth, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs Subcommittee. By April 7, 30.7 million taxpayers had filed electronically. Taxpayers are allowed to use credit cards, debit cards and electronic fund transfers to pay their taxes, and the IRS is developing computerized W-4 forms to replace current forms, Rossotti said.

Even so, don't count on doing less paperwork, Kingsbury warned. IRS officials told GAO they could not cut paperwork if Congress keeps passing laws that require more information collection.

GAO found some agencies that have managed to turn back the paper tide, however.

From 1998 to 1999, the Agriculture Department trimmed 4.2 million hours off its annual 72 million-hour paperwork load, and the Defense Department cut 7.3 million hours from the 119 million hours it requires for filling out forms, according to GAO calculations.

There has been some progress, but much more remains to be done, said John Spotila, chief of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

"We know that information technology offers great potential for streamlining paperwork, but we do not take full advantage of that potential," Spotila said.

OIRA hopes to do better by inviting members of industry, government and interest groups to a public forum April 27 to suggest how to reduce paperwork and deliver services better electronically.

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