Senate to OK GPO bill; House wary

With the clock running out on legislation that would reform how the government maintains public access to its print and electronic documents, feverish negotiations by a Senate committee appear to have mollified many opponents who had been working to delay and effectively kill the bill. However, opposition in the House seems certain.

According to sources on Capitol Hill, the Office of Management and Budget has agreed to support the Wendell H. Ford Government Publications Reform Act of 1998, which would extend the Government Printing Office's authority to ensure the preservation of publications generated by federal agencies.

In part, the bill is intended to preserve the increasing amount of material that agencies are publishing electronically. It is also intended as a tribute to Ford (D-Ky.), who is retiring.

Until late last week, OMB was known to be among the opponents of the bill, S. 2288, along with a number of agencies and other public and private organizations. Many opponents fear the proposed legislation— which would rename GPO the Government Publications Office— would create an unwieldy bureaucracy that actually would slow the flow of electronic information from agencies.

But after the committee chairman, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), had to disband a markup last week when it failed to muster a quorum, the committee worked out changes to allay OMB's concerns.

Reaching an Agreement

Eric Peterson, staff director of the Joint Committee on Printing (JCP), said Friday that the committee has reached an agreement with the administration to rewrite disputed provisions of the bill, characterizing most of the changes as "minor provisions" or "not substantive." Although the rules committee plans to hear from opponents of the measure on Wednesday, it plans to mark up the bill immediately and send it to the Senate floor, where it is expected to be approved quickly. Peterson said the information technology industry had come out against the bill, but he thinks it is because vendors were "given bad information." He said he thinks IT companies will end up supporting the bill because it would encourage agencies to publish information electronically.

According to Peterson, the new agreement includes report language clarifying that Congress would not have any role in managing GPO. It also includes "clarification and streamlining" of provisions concerning information dissemination, and new bill language that would require GPO to comply with 11 federal finance and management laws, including the Government Performance and Results Act.

In addition, Peterson said, the administration apparently has come to an agreement with GPO union members about how the agency would buy its printing services but that the "procurement model" in the legislation would not be changed.

OMB has not stated publicly a position on the bill, However, sources indicate OMB is supportive, and the White House is expected to sign the bill if it passes.

However, one congressional source said the bill faces a tough battle in the House. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) has garnered support from a number of members to have the House version referred to the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, where it will remain until after Oct. 9, when Congress is expected to go into recess.

Sessions and other members believe the legislation would undercut the Clinger-Cohen Act. GPRA and reform efforts by wresting agencies' control over their IT resources. The source said recent changes have done nothing to change their opinions.

According to the source, members of the House committee "will take a long, hard look at it. And that long, hard look will go well past the ninth of October." Sources on both sides of the controversy agree that if the bill does not pass this session, it likely will not be revived.

"It's no secret that time is of the essence for this bill," said Timothy J. Sprehe, president of Sprehe Information Management Associates. "If this bill is not passed in this Congress, it is likely to die."

The Justice Department, the National Archives and Records Administration and the Defense Automated Printing Service (DAPS) also are among the organizations that have sent letters to Warner opposing the legislation, said Olga Grkavac, senior vice president of the Information Technology Association of America's Systems Integration Division. The ITAA also wrote a letter opposing the legislation.

In their letters, opponents complained that the bill seeks to centralize printing in the GPO at a time when reforms introduced by the National Performance Review, now the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, emphasize decentralization, competition and greater use of technology in producing and disseminating government publications.

The letters are especially critical of a provision that requires agencies to notify the superintendent of government publications access programs before changing any documents posted on a World Wide Web site.

Supporters of the bill, particularly librarians, are concerned about the proliferation of "fugitive documents"— government publications, both printed and electronic, that are not captured and permanently stored by the depository library system.

The bill also eliminates the JCP and transfers its authority to GPO. The JCP is a congressional committee established under Title 44, which was written nearly 100 years ago. Title 44 for years has been the focus of reform efforts because it extends the JCP's authority over executive branch printing, which critics say contradicts the Constitution's separation of powers provisions.

While Warner and Ford defend the bill as an important piece of legislation that is intended to safeguard the public's access to government publications, it has come under heavy criticism from several organizations in and outside the government.

"There has been a lot more activity on the part of federal agencies coming out more forcefully on this," Grkavac said.

"This legislation could ultimately have a chilling effect on the government's use of electronic resources to streamline its operations," the ITAA said in its letter to Warner. "Some agencies could elect to stop using these electronic approaches to the dissemination of information rather than dealing with unwieldy notification and reporting requirements."

Peterson said the authors of the bill made efforts to make compliance with the law easy for agencies that publish electronically, and, except for the notification requirement, the bill sets up no obstacles for publishing and disseminating publications electronically.

The bill contains an enforcement provision that gives GPO the power to charge an agency the cost of obtaining any copy of a document published electronically, but Peterson said compliance is so easy that GPO will rarely have to use its enforcement power.

Opponents also object to giving GPO the authority to grant waivers, which independent printing operations such as DAPS and the National Technical Information Service need to operate.

Peterson said, however, the bill helps to create objective criteria for obtaining a waiver, and he said those organizations will have a chance to prove they are efficient and can offer cost savings for taxpayers. "We anticipate that will not be an onerous burden for agencies," he said.

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