Bill to preserve publications would add bureaucracy

The more Congress deliberates over Bill, Monica and Ken, the less likely our
representatives are to pass the Wendell H. Ford Government Publications Reform Act of

Senate sponsors of the proposed bill claim it will preserve the growing body of
documents agencies are publishing electronically. It would, all right—preserve them
like the volcano Vesuvius preserved the Roman resort of Pompeii.

The ostensible goal is to suppress bootleg versions of agency publications that are not
distributed and stored in the federal depository library system.

To prevent fugitive documents such as the multiple versions of the Starr Report, the
Government Printing Office would have the authority to fine agencies if they circumvented
the GPO distribution system. The bill,

S 2288, would reinforce GPO’s monopoly with notice requirements, delegations of
authority to print, waiver requirements and enforcement penalties.

Unlike past administrations, the White House is rolling over in deference to the
Senate, particularly retiring Sen. Ford (D-Ky.), to whom the legislation is a tribute.
Previous efforts to expand the oversight powers of GPO had been met by past presidents,
both Republican and Democrat, with everything from derision to vehement opposition. But
this latest foray into the business of federal agencies has been tolerated by an
administration loath to offend anyone on the Hill who has a vote.

A normally business-friendly Republican leadership dismissed information technology
industry opposition to the bill as being misinformed.

Both commercial IT and federal agency managers fear the creation of another layer of
bureaucracy impeding the ability of federal agencies to publish information efficiently.

Yet the staff of the Joint Committee on Printing, GPO’s congressional supervisor,
claims the bill will actually encourage agencies to publish electronically. They say that
the committee would be abolished, and Congress would not manage GPO.

Both propositions are laudable, but the real net effect of S 2288 would be chaos at
best and immobility at worst. Would GPO become a fourth branch of government? The
Publications Branch? Or the Information Branch?

Not likely, as GPO would eventually be drawn into orbit around either the legislative
or executive branches. The resulting fireworks would entertain those at a safe distance,
but federal agencies, caught in the way of the exploding magma, would not find the process
terribly pleasant.

Naturally the National Archives and Records Administration has opposed the bill. GPO
would receive authority over publications that not only parallel but also overlap
NARA’s role for records.

Officials from the Justice Department and the Defense Automated Printing Service have
both written letters critical of S 2288.

My favorite provision of the Ford bill—introduced by Sen. John Warner

(R-Va.)—is the requirement to notify the superintendent of government publications
before changing documents posted on an agency Web site. The site at my agency has more
than a hundred thousand documents maintained by dozens of webmasters.

Many of the documents are computer-generated; some are created dynamically by the Web
server from databases.

The provision doesn’t pass the laugh test; it is ludicrous on its face. It is like
notifying the Treasury Department every time before we spend money.

It’s tough enough telling Treasury after we’ve spent it, much less asking
permission beforehand. Agency executive correspondence rules would cause webmasters to
chew up hundreds of labor hours in memo writing for every 10 minutes of Web page editing.
The ability of the Web to provide a rapid response to customer needs would be eliminated.

The bill removes a major facet of federal programs from agencies’ control. It
flies in the face of the National Partnership for Reinventing Government’s efforts to
decentralize the bureaucracy.

Instead of putting authority into the hands of those who are closest to agency service
delivery, authority would be taken from agencies and concentrated in the hands of a single
government publications office that is beholden neither to the president nor to Congress.

I hope the Senate finds a more suitable tribute to Ford. His distinguished career
deserves better than this. 

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal
information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at

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