The U.S. Senate barber shop. (Photo: KRT/Newscom)

The U.S. Senate barber shop. (Photo: KRT/Newscom)

How much does it cost to run the Senate hair salon? Lawmakers say they want to know. Or do they?

Since its earliest days, Congress has been requiring government agencies — and apparently hair salons located in House and Senate office buildings — to produce reports accounting for how they are implementing this or that law, allocating their budgets and the like. You might describe it as lawmakers fulfilling their “oversight” duties. In theory it’s a good thing. But this is Washington, where theory and reality rarely meet.

Congress and federal agencies are notorious for spending money on ridiculous things — from $98,000 outhouses in Alaska to funding studies on the hookah-smoking habits of Jordanian students. But a recent story in The Washington Post about the number of reports mandated by Congress each year further illustrates how government waste and “oversight” are connected.

What exactly is the subject matter of these congressional reports? No doubt some, such as the Pentagon’s assessment of the war in Afghanistan, are relevant and used by lawmakers to do their jobs. But then the absurdity kicks in. For example, the annual report from the Social Security Administration about its printing operations. According to the Post:

Among other things, the report includes the ages and serial numbers of individual pieces of equipment: a forklift, two copiers, several laminators. The full report takes about 95 employees and 87 workdays to complete. But why on Earth would Congress want to know the serial number of somebody’s forklift? That was unclear. The senator who asked for the report retired in 1987 and died in 2010.

Another gem is a report on “Dog and Cat Fur Protection.” Again, from the Post:

The story of the report began in the late 1990s, when the Humane Society of the United States found that coats, toys and other imported items were being made with the fur of dogs and cats. Often, the animals were cruelly abused before they were killed…Congress passed a bill banning the import of dog and cat fur and demanded an annual report on how the law was being enforced. But after a few years, there was not much to say — customs officers reported finding relatively few shipments of contraband fur.

But no matter, because Congress had called for an annual report. So the reporting continued. And to what end?

…according to former customs employees, somebody has to gather data from more than 320 U.S. ports of entry. It can take weeks for them all to report back, with totals of how many searches they made for illegal fur and how much they found. In fiscal 2012, for instance, there were 109 searches of commercial shipments. None of them contained illegal fur.

Our tax dollars at work.

This is only getting worse as time goes on:

  • In 1928, the number of reports required by Congress was 303.
  • By 1960, the number of reports had risen to 470, and by 1970 had ticked up to 759.
  • By 1980, Congress was asking for 2,300 reports. By 1990, they wanted 3,448.
  • In 2014, Congress is expected to receive somewhere around 4,291 reports.

Now, considering many lawmakers don’t even read the text of legislation they are voting on, do we really believe they are reading these reports? Granted, based on the examples given here, many aren’t worth reading…but you get the point.

And how much does all this reporting cost? Again, in typical Washington fashion, no one actually knows. The Post reports that “The last good estimate comes from 1993, when they were believed to cost more than $100 million — $163 million in today’s dollars.”

President Ronald Reagan once said, “Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”

It’s time to take many of these congressionally mandated reports off their taxpayer-funded life support. Oh, and about those haircuts — since 1997, the taxpayer-subsidized hair salon located in the Senate has been losing approximately $340,000 each year. So you can see how efficient these reports are at trimming government waste.