The battle of the printer

A full-scale spitting match, to use a polite term, has broken out between the Office of Management and Budget and Congress over the U.S. Government Printing Office.

Months ago, OMB Director Mitchell Daniels Jr. announced that the century-old law requiring agencies to send their printing to GPO was unconstitutional and that executive branch agencies would no longer be bound by it. The OMB director said that executive agencies would henceforth outsource printing to whoever offers the best deal, whether private companies or GPO.

Congress thought this action was rather highhanded and told OMB to comply with the existing printing law in a Joint Resolution approved Oct. 18. Daniels thumbed his nose at Congress, responding that OMB would not comply with a law that the Justice Department says is unconstitutional. Apparently, OMB decides for itself which laws it will comply with rather than trying to change those it does not like.

In this fight, my head is with OMB, but my heart is with GPO. I am one who has long argued that GPO considers itself a legislative agency and that the separation-of-powers doctrine is violated when executive agencies must do what legislative agencies — excepting the full Congress itself — say they must. Requiring executive branch printing to be done by GPO seems plainly unconstitutional to me.

Furthermore, the law is an anachronism and should have been changed long ago. The controversy has run for decades for the simple reason that GPO exists and lawmakers do not know what to do with it. Further complicating the situation are GPO's strong labor unions.

I argue too that the federal government has no business running a printing agency, any more than it would have running a furniture factory just because it uses a lot of furniture. These are services widely available in the private sector, and there is nothing so inherently governmental about printing as to justify a federal agency.

So OMB is right on the merits of the case, but impudently wrong on manners. Most bothersome is the sheer arrogance and gratuitous insolence with which the White House is handling the matter. Their attitude seems to be, "We're right, you're wrong. Go fly a kite."

This behavior is consistent with the administration's stonewalling posture on access to information. With a knee-jerk "no" to all requests, the administration makes the extraction of every piece of information an exasperating and excruciating process, whether the request comes from Congress, the press or the public. The Executive Office of the President has armored itself with a fortress mentality.

In Washington, D.C., this kind of behavior invariably generates reaction. Doors close, friends become foes, and eventually the administration can get nothing done.

I never expected to say it, but in this fight I'm rooting for GPO.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Inc. in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at


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