Printing reform: White House backpedals at public's expense

Why oh why does this administration lack the courage of its convictions when it comes to reforming federal printing policy?

In the National Performance Review's manifesto "From Red Tape to Results: Creating a Government that Works Better and Costs Less " the Clinton administration noted that congressional control of executive-branch printing may have made sense in the 1840s but not in the 1990s. It concluded that the executive branch should be cut loose from its mandatory use of the Government Printing Office and allowed to fashion its own printing policies. The administration simply stated: "Eliminate the Government Printing Office's monopoly."

Having set forth this sensible course the administration has proceeded to back down in practice. In September 1994 one year after the release of the NPR report Alice Rivlin then director of the Office of Management and Budget instructed heads of agencies to continue using GPO for one year while the administration worked with Congress on comprehensive printing reform.

Then last April Leon Panetta then White House chief of staff sent a memorandum to heads of agencies telling them to use GPO for another year.

Since when does the White House chief of staff issue directives to heads of agencies? The explanation on the street for Panetta's memo was that a labor union came to the White House with a long list of favors and using GPO for printing happened to be a favor the White House could easily give away.

The possibility of reform looked brighter in May when assistant attorney general Walter Dellinger issued a legal opinion stating that "executive-branch departments and agencies are not obligated to procure printing by or through GPO " adding that the Justice Department foresaw "little or no risk of liability or sanction to contracting officers who act consistently with this opinion."

Dellinger's opinion should have been the green light for agencies to start buying their printing in the most efficient and cost-effective manner. But it was not to be.

On Sept. 12 Jacob Lew then acting director of OMB sent a memorandum to agency heads that acknowledged the Dellinger opinion but noted that "as a matter of policy agencies are to continue to use the capabilities and expertise of GPO."

In other words OMB was saying we know you now have good legal reasons to ignore GPO's monopoly and buy your printing cheaper and quicker but we don't want you to do so.

And what are OMB's reasons? "We have committed to working with Congress to achieve a comprehensive reform of Title 44 consistent with constitutional principles " Lew said.

What really happened was that Sally Katzen administrator of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs recently testified before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and caved in to pressure from Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

The administration has now frittered away three years waiting for Congress to work toward comprehensive reform of federal printing laws. Admittedly Congress must cooperate with the administration on this. But as long as the administration can be pressured into preserving the status quo you can bet Congress will have zero incentive for getting its act together.

To be sure Congress has proposed reform in the shape of H.R. 4280. That bill eases the GPO-monopoly requirement but gives the public printer the authority to reduce and eliminate executive-branch agencies' high-speed printing and duplicating capacities. That kind of reform is dead on arrival.

GPO meanwhile has not been shy about proposing its own ideas for reforming federal printing policy. In August GPO transmitted to the committee its proposal for reforming the federal depository library program portion of Title 44. Far from diminishing GPO's control of government information the proposal would greatly extend it. Agencies would have to provide all their electronic information products to the depository libraries at agency expense and under the control of the superintendent of documents.

So this is what the White House gets for its bold rhetoric and cowardly behavior about eliminating GPO's monopoly. The administration throws away the Dellinger-decision bargaining chip and kowtows to congressional badgering. OMB dictates a policy that makes neither management nor budget sense. Not only has no progress been made toward abolishing the monopoly but the administration will have to fight off new initiatives to expand and strength-en the monopoly.

This is not reinventing government this is reinvigorating a bad policy. We deserve better from an administration that touts its commitment to creating a government that's in step with the Information Age.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Washington D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@intr.net.

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