Government printing has a centralized problem | GCN

Over the years, Congress has occasionally tried to rewrite federal printing laws. The
just-concluded 105th Congress tried and failed again. As always, there are many
contributing factors. One was the attempt to preserve a dinosaur. Keep reading, because
you may be surprised which dinosaur I mean.

Reforming printing laws is difficult because government publishing involves both the
legislative and executive branches, with Congress in charge of the printing part. This
infringes on the principle of separation of powers. Printing is not an inherently
legislative activity. Neither is distributing documents to the public or to libraries.

Decades ago, Congress decided that it would control printing for two reasons. First,
when it is in session, Congress needs to have the Congressional Record printed overnight.
That is an expensive activity, and having other work available spreads out the overhead.
So Congress forced executive branch agencies to use the Government Printing Office.
Second, federal printing was the source of scandals in the distant past. Congress took
control to stop the abuse. Today, however, printing is just another service to be
procured, subject to no more abuse than any other procurement.

One of the cover stories for congressional control is that centralized printing is
necessary to make sure that federal documents are provided to depository libraries.
That’s a fine policy, but the truth is that it has never worked well. The libraries
complain about so-called fugitive documents that were printed by agencies but never sent
to the libraries—evidence of congressional indifference. The executive branch can do
just as well—or just as poorly—as Congress in servicing libraries.

The staff of the Senate Rules Committee started to make rational changes to the law,
but it got caught in the political realities of government printing. First, the libraries
want centralized printing because having a single supplier of free documents is easier for
them administratively. Second, the printing unions want to preserve the jobs of their
members at GPO. Third, Congress hates to give up any type of power. Control of printing is
no big deal, but it is a nice sideline for a couple of administrative congressional
committees that have little power otherwise.

These forces all pushed strongly toward centralized printing with legislative branch
control. Central control ignores the Internet, however. Agencies can and should make
documents directly available to the public online, with no intermediaries, no ink-on-paper
and no delay. Central control is a direct impediment to using the Net. Centralized
printing and distribution is what GPO reform mistakenly tried to preserve.

Other factors were probably more influential in the legislation’s failure. The
Clinton administration was leery of supporting reform that would continue legislative
branch control and possibly anger the unions. Industry—notably Xerox
Corp.—lobbied against the bill because companies want to sell document reproduction
equipment to agencies. Agencies hated the bill because it would make it more difficult for
them to serve their constituencies with information services through the Net and

Yet GPO itself is not a dinosaur. For the most part, the agency functions well in a
difficult political environment. It manages to do its work at about the same level of
efficiency as other agencies. The real dinosaur is the idea of centralized printing.

No matter how we reform printing, someone will have to handle congressional printing,
and it may as well be GPO. The Internet will not eliminate all printing needs, but we must
recognize that, because of it, ink-on-paper printing has changed forever. And with
information technologies such as print-on-demand, decentralized printing is now easy and
cheap. GPO may just have to resign itself to becoming smaller.

The government still needs to distribute paper and electronic documents to libraries
and to others. It especially needs to preserve electronic documents in archives. But
maintaining centralized printing and distribution will never work. That dinosaur is as
dead as they come, whether the Hill realizes it or not.

Anyone who wants to reform government printing has to face reality, and the first
reality of information distribution today is the decentralized Internet.  

Robert Gellman, former chief counsel to the House Government Operations
Subcommittee on Information, Justice, Transportation and Agriculture, is a Washington
privacy and information policy consultant. His e-mail address is [email protected].


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