Stopwatch legislation serves no one

In the waning days of any legislative year, Congress often finds itself racing against the clock to ensure that certain bills are passed before it adjourns. Normal debate and consideration are sacrificed even on complex and controversial legislation in order to complete work on a wide range of issues.

That clearly is the case with the Wendell H. Ford Government Publications Reform Act of 1998, named in honor of the retiring Democratic senator from Kentucky and crafted in the Senate Rules Committee. This bill, S.2288, would extend the authority of the Government Printing Office to ensure the preservation of government documents, both print and electronic, for future public access.

In part, the bill aims to modify the law to account for the large amount of information agencies generate electronically. The bill would require agencies to submit to GPO electronic images of new and modified World Wide Web pages or to pay GPO a fee if they fail to do so.

The proposal has outraged a number of agencies, administration officials and congressional offices who fear the bill would create a new bureaucracy that would infringe on the freedom and responsibilities agencies have to manage their information technology resources under the Clinger-Cohen Act and other statutes. Some believe the onerous regulations actually would discourage agencies from publishing information electronically.

This get-the-bill-passed-at-any-cost sense of urgency stems from the widely accepted notion that the bill essentially will die if not passed this year. But this is no way to create legislation of such import and complexity.

Clearly, the government needs to make sure that the plethora of electronic documents generated every day are preserved as part of the public record; that is an essential ingredient of democracy. And the GPO reform bill may turn out to have none of the damaging side effects that its opponents fear. But the breakneck pace of activity makes it difficult for everyone involved to sort these issues out adequately. It also does little to encourage that all-important sense of buy-in from the agencies that will be made to operate under the new rules.

Despite the pressures to get the bill through before the end of the congressional year, the Senate must realize that a bill of such importance should not be passed without an adequate vetting process. It is better to suffer the disappointment of starting the process all over next year than to risk the ill effects of stopwatch legislation.

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