GPO bill on deck in Senate

The Senate could vote as early as this week on a bill to reform the Government Printing Office despite strong objections from many federal information technology vendors.

The Wendell H. Ford Government Publications Reform Act of 1998 was approved by the Senate Rules Committee in a voice vote during an unusual meeting in a room off the Senate floor last week after senators had completed a scheduled floor vote. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), the Senate Rules Committee chairman, called the meeting after several attempts to vote the bill out of committee failed because not enough members were present.

Eric Peterson, staff director of the Joint Committee on Printing (JCP), said supporters of the bill, including Warner and Ford (D-Ky.), whose announced retirement prompted colleagues to name the bill in his honor, hope to see it move to the floor as quickly as possible.

But the bill is facing opposition in the House. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) is spearheading a letter to House leaders saying opponents do not want the bill in its current form put on the House calendar or attached to another bill.

The bill is aimed at solving the problem of "fugitive" documents, which are government publications that never make it into the depository library program, an effort to ensure 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.

The bill also addresses a constitutional problem, which stems from a Supreme Court decision in 1983 ruling it unconstitutional for Congress to exercise legislative veto power over executive actions, including agency rules on printing. Agencies have used the court's decision to challenge JCP's control over printing.

Nearly everyone interested in the bill supports efforts to help librarians who oversee the depository library program. But IT vendors and others who follow procurement policy say the bill creates sweeping legislation with grave implications on recently legislated procurement reforms in their efforts to strengthen the program.

The bill changes GPO's name to the Government Publications Office and does away with the JCP. The JCP's powers, including the granting of waivers to government printing operations that run independent of GPO, would be assumed by GPO.

IT companies, including those represented by the Information Technology Industries Council and the Information Technology Association of America, said these changes would centralize all printing operations under the GPO at a time when technology has simplified the printing process and made dissemination easier.

To capture all government documents for the libraries, the bill effectively makes GPO the gatekeeper, said Don Johnson, vice president for technology and strategic studies at Federal Sources Inc.

"They are trying to close every possible escape hatch," Johnson said. "We're not critical of that. We're only saying you have to look carefully at what impact that has on the operation of agencies and other legislation already passed to improve overall management of information technology."

Johnson said under the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, the Office of Management and Budget is in charge of coordinating agency IT initiatives and information dissemination activity. The bill transfers those review responsibilities to GPO, according to Johnson's analysis of the bill.

Provisions of the Government Performance and Results Act also would be affected, Johnson said. As an example, Johnson cited the increased control GPRA grants federal managers over quality of service. The bill would reverse this by requiring agencies to meet stringent GPO requirements for publication services, he said.

Johnson, former director of the National Technical Information Service, also pointed to a section of the bill giving GPO the authority to "requisition" printing equipment, which in effect grants the office "sweeping authority" over items ranging from high-end Xerox Corp. printers to computers that can run desktop publishing programs. "They didn't mean it to be interpreted that way, but that's what it says," Johnson said.

But Peterson said the bill is aimed at mass-produced and—distributed publications and has nothing to do with desktop computers and laser printers. "The IT industry is not the manufacturer of printing presses and the kind of printing equipment we are talking about," Peterson said.

Other IT officials have expressed concern that the bill would affect electronic publishing, but Peterson said the bill does not address any issues— except notification requirements— of how agencies produce publications on the Internet.

"We do ask that when they do create electronic publications that they notify [GPO] and provide enough information to be able to find the publication, establish a link and locator, and be able to capture the image," Peterson said.

Only minor amendments were made before the committee approved the bill last week. But in a nod to the IT industry's concern that the bill is moving too fast, the senators agreed to allow more time before the expiration of JCP-granted waivers. They would expire 120 days after rules implementing the bill are approved instead of 120 days after enactment of the bill.


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