GPO bill is 'every nightmare come true'

The Senate wants to give a going-away gift— in the form of the Wendell H. Ford Government Publications Reform Act of 1998— to one of its retiring distinguished members. Introduced by Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) as S. 2288, the bill is every nightmare come true for publishing officials in executive branch agencies.

In a long-winded 165-page bill, the Government Printing Office would be renamed the Government Publications Office. This trick of definition would extend GPO's authority to vast new domains as the government's official publishing czar. The bill would abolish the Joint Committee on Printing, thereby overcoming the constitutional separation-of-powers issue that plagues federal printing— namely, a legislative committee controlling the executive branch function of printing. But JCP's powers would move intact to other congressional committees and GPO. Executive agencies can be set free of GPO's monopoly control over printing, but only if GPO gives them the necessary delegation of authority. In other words, executive agencies would now be free to beg for relief from monopoly control. Some reform.

The superintendent of documents, gloriously renamed the superintendent of government publications access programs, would become a presidential appointee with rule-making authority over all agencies' information dissemination programs. Unless an agency publication is exclusively Internet-based, the superintendent would have the right to exercise some control over it. The bill closes every statutory loophole that permits agencies to ignore or circumvent GPO. Where a loophole may have escaped notice, GPO would have the authority to bill the agency anyway for publishing performed in house or outsourced. And the overall reporting requirements to GPO would cause agencies to shudder.

Librarians would get their dreams fulfilled in S. 2288 because the depository library program would enjoy a renaissance. For the first time, the language defining the depository library program would have some real compliance teeth in it— not a bad notion, except that it would occur at potentially great expense to the publishing agencies. If any agency outsourcing contract for printing or publishing services failed to include the new mandatory provisions for depository library copies, GPO would have the right to bill the Treasury Department and take the money out of the offending agency's budget. A very big stick.

The labor unions at GPO seem to get what they want from S. 2288. Not only does the bill provide buyouts for aging union members, but GPO would gain leverage to force out competitors and drive more business toward GPO.

The Office of Management and Budget seems not to be a player in this rapidly unfolding drama, having retired itself from the field several months ago by breaking off negotiations with JCP. The White House might have opposed the bill on its merits a short while ago. But with the labor unions supporting it and

S. 2288 bearing Ford's name, look for the White House to go along meekly if the bill arrives for the president's signature.As I read it, S. 2288 usurps authorities granted to the director of OMB under the Paperwork Reduction Act, usurps authorities of the archivist under the Federal Records Act and treads on authorities of the CIOs under the Clinger-Cohen Act. What the bill does not say, but implies, is that GPO would obtain authority over the National Technical Information Service and the Defense Automated Printing Service. And GPO could drive its competitors out of business. Other than these lethal blows to executive agencies' information dissemination programs, it's a pretty good bill— not.

No one seems to be asking whether S. 2288 is a good idea, whether the government needs someone holding monopoly power over printing and publishing and whether, if it does need a publishing czar, the czar should sit at GPO, an agency that has expertise and vested interest in printing and little else.

My opinion is that much is wrong with federal information dissemination and that the central management leadership in OMB leaves a great deal to be desired, but S. 2288 is far from the answer. The last thing government information needs is a newly enfranchised gatekeeper to build an empire in the name of increasing the flow of information to the public. And that's what GPO would become.

The legislative calendar is very tight now, with few days left in the 105th Congress. The Ford bill's tactical strength is that, having been named after a retiring senator, it goes to the head of the queue, and congressional noblesse oblige comes into play. On the other hand, at the end of the 105th Congress, the Warner-Ford coalition will disappear, so if S. 2288 fails to pass quickly, it probably will fail forever. The principal hope of the bill's opponents is to mount a delaying action. The political infighting should make the rest of the summer very hot indeed.

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

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