Hill to debate GPO overhaul

In a move to ensure public access to government documents, the Senate Rules Committee next week will consider legislation that dramatically overhauls the Government Printing Office and extends its traditional authority over printing to electronically produced and disseminated government publications on federal Web sites.

The bill follows a study by the General Accounting Office on the role of the GPO, an operation established more than 150 years ago to handle the printing and dissemination of government documents such as the Congressional Record, the Federal Register, census material, agriculture bulletins and consumer protection information.

But the proposed legislation also would affect government printing operations outside GPO, including the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) and the Defense Automated Printing Service (DAPS), which have become competitors to the central printing office and have not complied fully with preservation laws, GPO officials said.

GPO is trying to ensure that no matter how an agency publishes a publication, it is captured and the public can access it.

But critics of the bill say it is not good for information technology companies and is a step backward that eliminates competition that currently exists within the government between GPO and the other printing operations.

The bill would make a number of changes at GPO, including renaming it the Government Publications Office and giving it an enforcement mechanism for obtaining materials not published by GPO that belong in the depository library program.

In introducing the bill, which enjoys broad support from librarians, Sens. John Warner (R-Va.) and Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.) said the role of the depository libraries is key to the success of government's transition from printed material to the use of new technologies.

The depository library program ensures that all unclassified government publications are cataloged and disseminated to 1,400 depository libraries nationwide where the public can access the material free of charge. Currently GPO prints extra copies of all publications and distributes them to the participating libraries.

But there has been a long-standing argument over whether electronically produced and disseminated government publications are covered by the program. There are now more than 4,300 government-sponsored Web sites, and there has been an increase in other forms of electronic publishing, a situation that makes compliance with the rules governing the depository library program difficult or nearly impossible.

The bill attempts to settle that argument by providing for permanent access to information in electronic formats, said Andy Sherman, director of congressional and public affairs for GPO. It also requires agencies to give advance notice of any changes to documents on the Web.

"In the current environment, publications are put up on Web sites, and before the superintendent of the government access programs knows they are there, they are revised or removed," said Eric Peterson, staff director of the Joint Committee on Printing (JCP). "There is no record or any way in the future the public would have access to them."

Under the advanced-notification requirement, agencies would send an image file to the superintendent so that it could be put in the access program and cataloged before the change, Peterson said. GPO would have the right under the bill to seek payment for the cost of obtaining the images from agencies that do not send notification or copies to GPO before making revisions or removing them.

The proposed legislation also eliminates the JCP, which grants waivers allowing agencies to set up printing facilities.

DAPS obtained a waiver from JCP so it could print most Defense Department publications. NTIS has a similar operation within the Commerce Department.

Peterson said these printing operations have expanded their mission by soliciting printing jobs beyond their original mandates, but according to one critic of the bill, the competition has had a positive effect on government printing.

"This is a centralization of all printing-related activities at GPO, and it represents a very anti-competitive-type position where the small amounts of competition that now exist within the government...are targeted directly," said Don Johnson, vice president at Federal Sources Inc. and former director of NTIS.

Johnson said the bill reverses a trend that has developed in recent years to reduce a monopolistic control over printing and give agencies more choice.

While the bill would cancel waivers that have been granted to NTIS and DAPS, those organizations would be allowed to apply to GPO for another waiver, Peterson said.

"All we are saying to agencies is 'time out; let's clean the slate and start over,' " Peterson said. Agencies that can justify the need to run their own printing operations can make their case to the Office of Management and Budget and to Congress, he said.

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