A reformed federal printing law soon? Don't hold your breath

The window of opportunity for reforming federal printing laws shrinks every day and may vanish entirely in a few months. If we don't get a law passed in the current Congress to revise Title 44 and the roles of the Joint Committee on Printing (JCP) and the Government Printing Office, we probably won't get one for many years to come.

In a burst of bipartisan amity, the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress reached a gentleman's agreement to work on a consensus revision of federal printing statutes. Right now, the law says all executive branch agencies must have their printing done at GPO. At long last, everyone seems in agreement that a statute giving the congressional JCP control over executive branch printing is, to say the least, constitutionally irregular in light of the separation-of-powers doctrine. Sooner or later, this law must change.

JCP and the Office of Management and Budget traditionally have been at loggerheads over this issue. But during the last couple years, the White House and OMB have instructed agencies to behave peacefully and to keep sending their printing to GPO. Meanwhile, JCP and OMB have worked together to create a new legislative solution.

Executive agencies understandably want freedom from the GPO's monopoly over printing. GPO understandably wants to survive in some recognizable form that will preserve meaningful functions for the agency and jobs for its personnel. Librarians want a revivification of the federal depository library program and a guarantee that executive branch documents will get into the depositories.

And, of course, all parties recognize that the electronic Information Age has rendered current arrangements obsolete. When desktop publishing technology allows agencies to disseminate their information products directly to end users via diskette, CD-ROM, fax-on-demand and Internet World Wide Web sites, a centralized printing apparatus for the huge federal government is a dinosaur.

So JCP and OMB are said to have developed a draft bill that might actually contain a workable solution. Still closely held, the draft has yet to be exposed to the daylight of open criticism.

But time is short, and larger events are closing the opportunity window. Sen. Strom Thurmond's (R-S.C.) announcement that he will vacate the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee opens the way for Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) to leave chairmanship of JCP and take over the committee in the next Congress. Warner, in cooperation with his colleague Wendell Ford (D-Ky.), has led the congressional effort to reform Title 44. Ford retires at the end of this Congress. Eric Peterson, JCP's staff director who has been a key actor in the bipartisan negotiations, will probably travel on with Warner.

Sally Katzen has moved into the White House from OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Whatever her other virtues or vices, Katzen was the first OIRA administrator to take an active role in information policy issues, and she leaves a leadership vacuum on the administration side of the equation. So, the political leadership for the Title 44 reform effort is disappearing.

Not even mentioned yet is the wild card in this friendly little poker game: GPO's labor unions. It is well and good for JCP and OMB to craft new legislation, but the negotiators' jobs are not seriously at stake in any proposed solution. When and if GPO loses its statutory monopoly over printing— as the unions know full well— the agency faces the probability of sliding into oblivion because of rapidly diminishing business.

So everyone wonders whether JCP and OMB have been talking to the unions. Have the unions bought into the proposed new solution that, sooner or later, will eliminate a few thousand union jobs?

Conventional Washington wisdom says the unions earned a large measure of White House gratitude for labor's role in the 1992 presidential election. The rumor mills say that, before departing for her new job, Katzen told Warner and Ford that the administration would not support the draft printing reform bill. Perhaps the unions already have cashed a chit at the White House, and Katzen's message was the unions' answer to the draft bill.

Only a few months are left in which to get new printing reform legislation passed in this Congress. And the solution must include the labor unions that arguably have the most to lose when a new statute goes into effect.

Can Congress and the administration do it? Don't bet on it.

-- Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates, Washington, D.C. He can be reached via the Internet at jtsprehe.intr.net.

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