OMB looks to break printing 'monopoly'

A tug-of-war is under way between the Bush administration and the Government Printing Office over whether it's cheaper for private vendors to print federal documents instead of the agency that's been doing it for more than a century.

The Office of Management and Budget last month issued a proposed rule that would allow the General Services Administration to set up a multiple- award schedule for printing companies, as it has done for technology vendors, and enable agencies to take bids on printing services via the Internet.

Since 1994, federal officials have publicly discussed tossing out the mandate that makes GPO the single source for printing services. OMB stepped up that campaign in a May 2002 memorandum disparaging the "government monopoly."

OMB's memo criticized "the use of outdated specifications, the failure to take advantage of cost-saving technology and reliance on costly distribution channels."

OMB's new policy, according to the proposed rule, "is designed to help agencies overcome these shortcomings by giving them the power of choice."

The problem, it seems, is that GPO already sends more than 75 percent of its printing jobs to the printing industry, but under carefully controlled rules that include cataloging and indexing every piece of paper generated by the government.

Eliminating the GPO mandate "frees agencies to select printing from a wide array of sources that can demonstrate their ability to meet the government's needs most effectively," according to the proposed rule, which would amend the Federal Acquisition Regulation.

As OMB envisions it, all companies on a multiple-award schedule would be able to bid on projects worth more than $2,500, and all such orders would go through GSA's e-Buy, an online system through which agencies can solicit bids on product or service procurements.

GPO's monopoly is a vestige of "old" government, and it is time for it to end, according to Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement.

"While there is no denying that [GPO] has some strong political support, the fact is that there is nothing special about printing that deserves to have it segregated from other government services," Allen said.

Not so, GPO spokesman Andy Sherman said. He said the OMB plan would wind up costing agencies more money. And not only that, he said there would be no official catalog of printed material, making it impossible to find documents in the future.

"When you blow apart our system, you leave the public basically in the dark about what has been printed and what is available," Sherman said.

The law appears to be on GPO's side, according to Anthony Zagami, general counsel for GPO. In the past, Congress rejected similar printing policies, and the General Accounting Office has said that Congress did not intend for OMB to spend any money to change printing policy, he said.

Diane Frank and Megan Lisagor contributed to this article.

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