Printing detente

Are the printing wars over? Is it safe to come out? The battle that former Office of Management and Budget Director Mitchell Daniels Jr. waged to eliminate the Government Printing Office seems to have ended amicably. Daniels and Public Printer Bruce James signed a treaty on Daniels' last day in office, June 6, and each side made substantial concessions.

OMB agreed to cease both the kill-GPO offensive and its campaign to revise the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) to free executive agencies from GPO's printing monopoly. OMB also said it would place new limits on agencies' in-house printing operations, long a sore point with GPO.

For its part, GPO agreed to stop acting like a monopolist. The agency will establish a Web portal by 2005 that will permit the executive branch to deal directly with printers, something GPO had long prohibited. Agencies will be able to bargain over prices and negotiate matters of quality and timeliness. They will pay GPO a 3 percent service fee instead of the former 6 percent.

Last year, I denounced OMB for the arrogant and insolent manner in which it was attempting to abolish GPO, even though I agreed with the abolition in principle. Now, the long-running conflict seems resolved, although proof rests with how the agreement is carried out.

As an outsider, I can only make guesses as to the dynamics that led to the compromise.

I am inclined to assume James took the lead in moving toward the resolution. As I remember, he is the only holder of that office who has been willing to negotiate with the executive branch about the conflict. Previous public printers have stood their ground and taken refuge in the law that many parties, myself included, consider unconstitutional.

We must not underestimate the role members of Congress might have played in the peacemaking. In the past, some members have taken a simple position: GPO is ours and the executive branch has no business trying to kill it. Possibly, some of those members, perhaps Republicans, told Daniels he would get nowhere if he tried to change the law and that Congress would react punitively if he changed the FAR.

Whatever the dynamics, the negotiated agreement is a good one, with both sides giving up something and emerging with heads held high.

The surprising part of all this is why Daniels bothered with GPO in the first place. Faced with deficits running into the hundreds of billions, he chose to focus his attention on printing, which costs the executive branch less than $1 billion a year. In terms of government economy and efficiency, the entire GPO hullabaloo was misspent time on Daniels' part, no matter how happy the outcome.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Inc. in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

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