House panel reviews progress toward paperwork reduction

Agency officials gathered on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to describe how their departments are abiding by legislation designed to reduce the federal paperwork burden on the public.

Presiding over the House Government Reform Regulatory Affairs Subcommittee hearing, Chairwoman Candice Miller, R-Mich., chastised federal agencies for their implementation of the Paperwork Reduction Act, which was enacted in 1980 and amended in 1995. Excluding the Treasury Department, the federal government imposes nearly 1.6 billion hours of burden on the public, with the non-Treasury paperwork burden now exceeding 1996 levels, according to Miller.

"Federal agencies as a whole have not done an adequate job reducing burden in areas under their discretion," she said in a written opening statement. "Every hour spent by an individual or business completing paperwork for the federal government is an hour of loss productivity."

Kimberly Nelson, assistant administrator for the office of environmental information at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), testified that EPA's paperwork burden on the public is less than 2 percent of the total federal burden and ranks the sixth-highest of all agencies. While the agency has experienced increases in the burden since 2001 primarily due to key water programs, it has implemented several reduction initiatives, she wrote in her testimony.

One such program modernized the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) in order to increase the use of electronic reporting and data-management tools. Nelson said that for the 2003 reporting year, 93 percent of the TRI reporting community used designated software to submit data.

EPA also converted a form related to storm water into electronic format, a move designed to cut by 30 percent the time required to complete the form. "EPA is proud of the burden-reduction 'culture' that has developed over the years, even though it does not always translate into raw burden-reduction numbers," Nelson said.

Labor Department Chief Information Officer Patrick Pizzella, meanwhile, noted that since fiscal 2002, Labor has submitted 12 burden-reduction initiatives to the White House Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the law. The initiatives have resulted in some 221,751 fewer hours of paperwork, according to Pizzella.

Pizzella said the department also routinely reviews information collection and assesses how technology is being used to comply with legislation.

But Kevin Barrett, an industrial hygienist speaking on behalf of the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association, noted weaknesses in achieving paperwork reduction. Specifically, he highlighted the number of records and reports imposed by state and federal regulators and inaccurate calculations of the burden required by specific regulations.

"Federal regulators have made significant strides in assessing and reducing the readily identifiable burdens, but regulatory burden still weighs on the chemical industry in terms of both cost and paperwork," Barrett said. "We have picked all of the metaphorical 'low-hanging fruit' of paperwork-burden reduction and must now reach higher."

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