Panel reaches accord to break GPO monopoly

The Office of Management and Budget has agreed with the Senate Rules and Administration Committee staff on a plan to revamp federal printing rules that would end the Government Printing Office's 102-year monopoly on agency publishing.

The proposed legislation which has not yet been drafted would let agencies hire vendors directly to do their printing or if they have small jobs go through another agency. The plan also would start the federal government on developing a policy for maintaining electronic publications and take steps toward recovering so-called fugitive documents which are these documents not published by GPO and therefore not provided to the 1 200 federal depository libraries.

In a speech last week to federal information technology managers Bruce McConnell chief of information policy with OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs reported that OMB and Congress were "making progress legislatively on the printing issue." McConnell said officials have agreed on six points concerning the issue including "the biggest sticking point": how the government can ensure that appropriate documents get to repositories.

The plan is the latest attempt by lawmakers and OMB to craft a modern policy to cover about $1.5 billion in federal printing activities. "Technology today has created a whole different environment than back [in 1895]" when the current printing laws were written said Eric Peterson staff director of the congressional Joint Committee on Printing which oversees GPO.

Past efforts at reform have however run afoul of various groups including libraries and consumer advocates who fear the public will lose access to federal documents government unions who anticipate fewer jobs if GPO's mandate is curtailed and lawmakers who think allowing agencies to do their own printing will cost more money.

"Printing reforms get proposed perennially and nothing ever comes of them " said J. Timothy Sprehe president of Sprehe Information Management Associates and it is not clear whether this new plan will go anywhere either. For one thing Democratic lawmakers have not agreed to it according to an aide to Sen. Wendell Ford (D-Ky.) the ranking minority member on the Rules panel.

How the upcoming legislation might affect GPO is unclear. Congress is now the agency's biggest customer but it does not publish many documents during the two to three months every year it is not in session. Judy Russell a former GPO executive who now works for the publishing company IDD-Digital Alliances said GPO's survival could depend on its ability to keep other government customers.

OMB is pushing reform for two reasons: It does not want Congress to have control over agencies' publishing any more and it believes decentralizing printing will save agencies money. A recent review of printing conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general was inconclusive as to whether contracting out was less expensive.

In an Aug. 4 memo prepared for HHS deputy chief information officer Neil Stillman the IG compared six NIH printing jobs with estimates for the same job from GPO and found GPO's costs were lower in four cases. But for the most expensive job NIH paid less than GPO would have charged. The law already allows for some publications to be printed outside of GPO.

Meanwhile out of 10 printing jobs reviewed the IG found that only five publications were provided to the depository libraries but NIH officials claimed GPO guidelines did not require these particular documents to be distributed.

According to Peterson the legislative outline agreed to by OMB and the Rules staff are as follows:

* GPO would continue to print congressional documents and could compete for business from executive branch agencies. Agencies could print their documents through other agencies designated as "executive agents" that hold governmentwide printing contracts or if their jobs are large enough contract with vendors themselves.

* The Superintendent of Documents which is responsible for distributing documents to the depository libraries and for running the GPO Access online service would continue as a separate legislative branch agency called the Superintendent of Government Publications.

* Agencies would have to notify the Superintendent of Government Publications every time they publish a document so that copies could be ordered for the depository libraries. If agencies do not disclose a publication they would later have to pay the costs of disseminating it themselves.

* The Superintendent of Government Publications and the National Archives and Records Administration would be directed to recommend ways to ensure that electronic publications are maintained so the public can have access to them over the long term.

Peterson said more documents would be provided to libraries under the plan because agencies would no longer be trying to hide the fact that they went around GPO to do their publishing. For example it is designed to make clear for the first time that agencies which publish documents through the National Technical Information Service have to designate copies for the libraries. Russell said the plan might not address another reason for fugitive documents: The agency officials producing them - especially such "nontraditional" documents as CD-ROM discs - simply are not aware they have to provide the extra copies.GPO officials could not be reached for comment. Peterson said lawmakers hope to draft a bill and have it enacted before the end of this year.

- Brad Bass contributed to this report.

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