The effort needed to comply with federal bureaucracy now has a number. According to new government estimates released this week, Americans spent 8.8 billion hours filling out government forms in fiscal 2010.
The good news? That's lower than the 9.8 billion hours logged the previous year. The bad news? The drop is mostly due to a change in how federal agencies estimate how long it takes to complete their paperwork.
In all, the paperwork burden has increased by around 19% over the past decade, up from 7.4 billion hours in fiscal 2000, the White House Office of Management and Budget said.
The OMB data contain fodder to keep both sides arguing. Between 2002 and 2005, federal agencies reported significant increases in paperwork demands. Republicans controlled Congress and the White House for almost all that period. In 2005, laws including the Bush administration's Medicare prescription-drug overhaul, created what is now estimated to be an extra 250 million paperwork hours.
At the same time, the biggest single-year jump in the past decade came in 2010, when individuals and businesses spent an extra 352 million hours responding to paperwork requests from agencies prompted by new statutory requirements. (Overall, OMB said the growth came almost entirely from new laws rather than agency-level decisions.)
Last year, employers needed almost 70 million additional hours to claim a new credit for hiring more workers, and restaurants spent 14.5 million hours to display calorie counts for their menus, according to figures submitted to OMB by the departments of the Treasury and Health and Human Services. In fact, the Treasury was the source of most of the paperwork burden in 2010, hitting 6.4 billion hours, or 73%.
Warren Hudak, owner of a seven-person accounting firm in Harrisburg, Pa., said he found it "shocking to believe that the amount of hours went down." Mr. Hudak said paperwork burdens had brought him many new clients in recent years, but that as a business owner, his experiences of filling out forms remained "very frustrating."
The winner of the largest year-on-year increase was the Securities and Exchange Commission, which decided it actually took twice as long to complete its forms than it previously thought, upping its estimates to 361 million hours from 168 million. A spokesman declined to comment.
Meg Reilly, a White House spokeswoman, said the administration had "an obligation to implement laws passed by Congress, which are the primary driver of paperwork burdens." She said the president has "taken unprecedented steps to reduce regulatory burdens wherever possible."President Barack Obama has directed federal agencies to root out red tape that could hinder job creation. Critics say those efforts have mainly been cosmetic.
Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the Republican House speaker, issued a written statement criticizing "Washington's intrusion and micromanagement," suggesting there is blame to be spread around. He added that lawmakers had "a responsibility to work together to remove barriers like these and liberate our economy."
The OMB said it hadn't attempted to put a financial cost on the paperwork requests, but noted in its report that "it is clear that the monetary equivalent would be very high. For example, if each hour is valued at $20, the monetary equivalent would be $176 billion."
The data were compiled under the Paperwork Reduction Act, which requires agencies to calculate the amount of time associated with filling out every form they produce, and the number of people likely to have to complete the paperwork. Government employees then create more paperwork on these estimates, which is sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget each year.
Agency officials are also required to suggest ways to reduce paperwork each year. This year, the National Security Agency said it would stop surveying workshop attendees at an annual conference, saving a total of 33 hours. The Department of Defense found other ways to measure the success of the conference, the agency reported.
The information was collated in a report published on the OMB website Thursday. It was 314 pages long.
Write to Louise Radnofsky at firstname.lastname@example.org