GPO's longstanding federal printing monopoly may be history

For federal printing, the stuff hit the fan May 31.

That's the day Walter Dellinger, assistant attorney general and head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, issued a memorandum to the General Services Administration titled "Government Printing Office Involvement in Executive Branch Printing." Dellinger's opinion, in a nutshell, is: "Executive branch departments and agencies are not obligated to procure printing by or through GPO" because federal printing laws are unconstitutional.

Back in 1993 the Joint Committee on Printing decided to close down GSA's Centralized Field Reproduction and Printing Services, whose 17 printing and copying centers were peddling their wares to other agencies throughout the country.

JCP revoked the centers' charters, ordered them closed by the end of the year and instructed GSA to deliver all equipment to GPO.

GSA's lawyers had maintained that GSA has general authority to provide printing services to other agencies. From a legal standpoint, GSA felt it was on safe ground in selling its services around the government.

When JCP dismissed GSA's legal opinions, GSA wrote to the attorney general asking for a legal analysis of the constitutional implications of the involvement of GPO in executive branch printing and duplicating. GSA wanted to know whether GPO could undertake any decision-making role in printing for executive branch agencies and what liability contracting officers might run if they acted contrary to JCP and GPO dicta.

The new DOJ opinion invokes the doctrine of separation of powers, which says the legislative branch makes the laws, the executive branch carries them out, and the two must not trespass upon one another's powers.

The legislature exercises its powers by making laws and must not attempt to administer them. The executive exercises its powers by administering the laws and must not attempt to make them. When the two branches disagree, the third branch of government, the courts, adjudicates the difference.

Printing executive branch documents is an executive function. Because GPO is a legislative agency, an arrangement that calls for GPO to control executive branch printing violates the separation of powers and is therefore unconstitutional.

DOJ is the executive branch's lawyer, so the opinion is telling agencies they need have no fear if they buy their printing from sources other than GPO. DOJ goes a step further by considering what might happen to a contract officer who signs off on a non-GPO printing procurement: "We perceive little or no risk of liability or sanction to contracting officers who act consistently with this opinion."

This legal opinion holds the potential to blow federal printing wide open. Agencies now have a license to buy their printing from the least expensive and best source, whether it's GPO or the local Kinko's.

The Office of Management and Budget could now remove printing as the sole exception to the policy in OMB Circular No. A-76, Performance of Commercial Activities.

The federal document sales program operated by GPO's superintendent of documents depends on GPO's ability to ride agency print orders coming through GPO for low-cost copies. The federal depository library program also depends on documents flowing through GPO for its supply source.

These two programs have already been hit by the fact that many electronic publications such as CD-ROMs are originating in executive agencies and do not come through GPO.

When the print orders finally stop coming through GPO, document sales and the federal depositories are going to be in even bigger trouble, if not total chaos.

I stand up and cheer at the possible breakup of GPO's printing monopoly. In my view, the existence of GPO as the monopoly provider of federal printing is arguably the longest running, legally condoned mismanagement scandal in the history of U.S. government.

At the same time, one must acknowledge that some agencies continue to receive excellent assistance from GPO. For some kinds of repetitive jobs, GPO's services apparently cannot be beat. I hope the agencies that want to can continue to enjoy this service.

But if we assume agencies will begin to exercise free choice in buying printing, GPO stands a good chance of closing its doors sometime soon for lack of business.

When this happens, the government will have to invent new machinery, appropriate to our electronic age, for selling government documents because the superintendent of documents does represent one-stop shopping, and that is valuable enough to retain.

The government will also have to invent a contemporary version of the federal depository library system in order to guarantee that the public, throughout the country, has access to information about the workings of its government.

Let's hope that none of the new inventions entails giving some agency a monopoly over government information distribution.


Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates, Washington, D.C. He can be reached via the Internet at [email protected] This column can be read on FCW's home page at


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