Holding the Government Accountable

Revealing the Lost World of Government Reports

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Congress is considering a simple but important step in overseeing federal agencies. A recently introduced bill would require a one-stop, easy-to-use, online location for all congressionally mandated reports. This may put an end to the world of lost and hidden government reports.

Each year, Congress mandates that federal agencies report on programs, laws, and other aspects of government, big and small. Whether it’s an analysis of Medicare’s ability to provide health care to seniors, the price impact of agricultural subsidies, problems with the Navy’s aircraft carrier program, or Amtrak’s ability to keep the trains running on time, Congress wants to know. In fact, agencies complete several thousand congressionally mandated reports annually in order to keep both elected officials and the public informed.

Of course, government reports are intended to shine a light on government operations and national issues, but in an odd and persistent twist, Congress, the press, and the public can’t always find the reports after they are published. Surprisingly, no government agency or congressional office currently has the job to keep track of the reports. Instead, each agency has its own system of issuing and transmitting reports. Major reports of national and political focus are closely tracked and covered in the press. However, those that are less notable, but still important, may slip between the bureaucratic cracks.

At times, a hard-to-find report is about agencies trying to keep bad news under wraps. However, losing track of a government report is usually just part of the antiquated world of how Congress interacts with federal agencies. Too often, a report mandated by Congress gets completed, but is hard or impossible to find on the agency website. Sometimes only a small number of copies are delivered by an agency to a Committee, for example, fulfilling the letter of the law, but not seen by others who need to know. Congressional staff looking even a few months after the official publication date may have to make multiple calls to agencies in order to track down a copy.

The Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act (H.R. 4631) is a bipartisan bill championed by Representative Mike Quigley (D-IL) in the House, and introduced by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) in the Senate. It would require that federal agencies forward copies of their reports to the Government Publishing Office (GPO), which would then post them online, allowing free access with modern search features. Congress, the public, and journalists could then easily find the reports. The Library of Congress would provide additional accountability by creating a list of all mandated reports so Congress and the GPO can double check for missing reports.

The proposed legislation would represent a low-cost, effective boost to government transparency that is long overdue. Congress should recognize that passing the legislation will make their job easier, and give the public a quick and simple way to access our government.