Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) today released the latest example in a monthly series highlighting Washington’s wasteful spending during a time of record debt:

During their standup routine, Abbott famously explained to Costello that it is possible to work and loaf at the same time only if you work in a bakery. However, the simple distinction between work and non-work activities was recently lost on at least one federal agency.

According to a recent report from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) in the Department of Commerce, the Patent and Trial Appeal Board within the U.S. Patent and Trade Office (USPTO) hired 19 new paralegals in September of 2008 to address an increasing backlog of patent appeals. But in a twist only a bureaucracy could tolerate, a hiring freeze prevented the Board from hiring enough managers to supervise the paralegals. Combined with conflicting contracts with the Patent and Trade Board Union and rules that allowed paralegals to schedule their own work, this meant the USPTO ended up paying these paralegals not to work for long periods of time. From 2009 through 2013, paralegals spent more than 102,000 hours in leisure activities while on the clock (the equivalent of 49 employees working 40 hours a week, for an entire year)—while the number of patent appeals doubled and created a mountainous backlog.

These leisure activities—which the paralegals were required to record in their ledgers as “other time”—included listening to the radio, watching television, exercising at home, doing laundry, reading their Kindles, and making personal phone calls, to name a few of many. Many of the paralegals spent up to 50-70 hours a week on “other time,” which their managers called the “I don’t have work but I’m going to get paid code” on the timesheets.

For their loafing lifestyles, the Washington Post reported the paralegals were paid between $60,000-80,000 annually from 2009 to 2013. Amazingly, the government distributed $561,196 in bonuses to these paralegals.  From 2009 through 2013, the eight supervisory paralegal specialists responsible for ensuring the paralegals had enough work also received bonuses totaling $120,524, while senior managers were paid $87,745 in bonuses. As Abbott might say, it’s not real loafing unless you have lots of dough!

In total, OIG estimated these deficiencies cost the taxpayers $5.09 million from 2009-2013.

As a result of the OIG report and a renewed effort by senior management in the summer of 2013, “other time” has since fallen to near-zero levels. After years of standing by without addressing the problem, senior management finally made clear that there is zero-tolerance for other time. 

“This is another unfortunate example of Washington governing with excuses rather than with concern for the American people,” said Portman. “I am glad the USPTO has addressed this, but I believe that every area of the federal government needs to be examined for inefficiencies and potential savings to reduce our debt and create the jobs we need so badly.”

From 2009 through 2013, the backlog of U.S. patent appeals increased from 12,489 to 25,308. That’s a lot of potential American innovation and business to jeopardize for no good reason.