Vol. 10 No. 9 October 2002 
Cost Cutting or Access Control: OMB Dismantiling GPO?
by Miriam A. Drake Professor Emerita, Library, Georgia Institute of Technology
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Since 1813, people seeking federal government information have relied on depository libraries. In the earliest days, government documents were deposited in selected university and other libraries. The Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) was established in its current configuration in 1865. The notion of readily available government information for people has a long tradition that has delivered value to the people through the partnership of 1,300 depository libraries and the FDLP. Depository libraries spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to process, house, maintain, and disseminate online government information and documents in print and microform.

The Superintendent of Documents, an official of the U.S. Government Printing Office, is responsible for the distribution of government documents through the FDLP, as well as sales through government bookstores and directly to the people. In FY 2001, the Superintendent of Documents distributed more than 30.1 million publications through sales and the FDLP. In addition, there were more than 355 million downloads of documents from GPO Access.

OMB's Proposal

U.S. Code Title 44 section 501 states, "All printing, binding, and blank book work for Congress, the Executive Office, the Judiciary, other than the Supreme Court of the United States, and every executive department, independent office, and establishment of Government, shall be done at the Government Printing Office (GPO)." For more than 20 years, various administrations have challenged the GPO "monopoly" on printing under the guise of saving money. The money-saving arguments have rarely addressed fully, or at all, issues related to the costs of printing and methods of distribution and dissemination of information to the taxpayers who have paid to have the information created and published. The proponents of decentralized printing have neglected to acknowledge that agencies will incur extra costs administering a printing program carried out in-house or through contracts with private printers. Distribution through the FDLP and the sales program and critical issues of preservation and access usually are ignored when the cost-cutting arguments are being made. 

A May 12, 2002, memo to executive departments and agencies from Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr., head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), represents the latest attempt to decentralize printing and publication. In the memo, Mr. Daniels directed agency heads to select "printing and duplicating services based on the best quality, cost, and time of delivery." A footnote in the Daniels' memo stated that government agencies "shall continue to ensure that all government publications" be made available to the FDLP through the Superintendent of Documents. It is not clear how this requirement will be enforced. 

Mr. Daniels' memo neglected to address sales of documents. Most agencies do not have authority to sell documents and recover some costs. The Superintendent of Documents is authorized to sell documents and realizes some cost recovery through sales. Business and industry rely on the Internet and the sales program for documents, such as congressional and agency reports and congressional hearings. Downloading and local printing may not be the most efficient way for a business to acquire documents of more than 15 or 20 pages. 

Separation of Powers

So how can a federal agency directive override statutory law?

One argument made in favor of shifting printing to executive branch agencies is based on the separation of powers embodied in the U.S. Constitution. The GPO is responsible to the Congress, the legislative branch, not to the President, the executive branch, though the Public Printer is appointed by the President subject to Senate confirmation. The Public Printer appoints the Superintendent of Documents. Exceptions to the Title 44 mandate to use the GPO for printing may be made by the Joint Committee on Printing on a case-by-case basis. Section 501 (2) states that JCP may grant waivers to agencies to print in house or procure printing by contract. While the JCP determines how publishing will be done by the executive branch, the President determines who will manage the GPO and the government's printing activities. 

Mitchell Daniels indicated in his memo that he would recommend that the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) Council amend the Code of Federal Regulations to reflect the proposed policy change. The FAR amendment process requires that "Views of agencies and nongovernmental parties or organizations will be considered in formulating policies and procedures." Interested and affected parties should be given the opportunity to comment. Clearly, the public would be affected by these changes. It is not clear whether Mr. Daniels intends that the FAR Council will seek public comment. At presstime, a draft of the new FAR implementing Daniels' directive had a rumored release date in the Federal Register of mid-August.

Frances J. Buckley, Superintendent of Documents, pointed out in a telephone conversation that the appropriate way to address the issue is to amend Title 44 or obtain a judicial decision that the current law is unconstitutional. Amending the FAR does not mean that it will be in concert with the law. Even an authoritative ruling on its constitutionality might not remove the statutory requirement. The grounds of argument used by the OMB focus on the management structure by which Congress supervises GPO, rather than on the legitimacy of GPO performing its statutorily mandated tasks.

Save Money, Stop Monopoly

The May 12, 2002, OMB memo indicated that when the private sector can provide the best combination of cost, quality, and timely delivery, agencies should contract with the private sector. Mr. Daniels estimated that $50-70 million would be saved by each agency contracting with private printers. He did not preclude the use of GPO if its costs, quality, and timely delivery were acceptable. The memo did not acknowledge the increased costs of having approximately 600 departments each responsible for writing bid specifications for printing, managing the bid process, negotiating terms, and analyzing performance.

The GPO uses a competitive bid process involving more than 10,000 private companies. Many GPO bidders are small businesses. If these businesses had to deal with roughly 600 departments, each with different specifications and standards, it is doubtful that small businesses could compete. In addition, the GPO already outsources the majority of its printing to a network of printers, including many small businesses.

Same Song, New Performer

Both the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton used cost cutting as an excuse to remove printing from the GPO. In 1981 Reagan's budget office halted production of magazines, pamphlets, books, and audio-visual materials by 38 agencies. The goals were to reduce costs and "consolidate, modernize, and streamline the Government's printing operations."1 In 1983 the Reagan administration claimed that savings of $30-50 million would result through reduction of printing operations in 130 departments. At the time there were about 1,000 printing facilities in departments and agencies. The projected savings would result from the difference between the cost of in- house printing and the cost of private printing. Earlier, OMB targeted 2,300 publications for elimination. At this stage the GPO was considered a bargain compared with in-house agency printing2.

By 1990 the issue evolved into the "privatization" of federal government information with private vendors selling taxpayer-funded information back to the taxpayers. The "privatization" included electronic databases as well as printed documents. The price of a subscription to the Congressional Record increased during the 1980s from $45 to $225, or 400 percent. Circulation fell by almost one-third. Most of the cancellations came from non-profits and voluntary groups that could no longer afford the price. Lobbyists and others who could pass on the cost to their clients retained their subscriptions3. These activities represented an attempt to let the market determine the value of information without consideration of how federal government information supports business, education, accountability, and other activities. The danger in these arrangements was that only lobbyists or companies able to pass on the cost of information could afford to acquire it. This policy ignored the public interest and the obligation to make information available to the public.

President Clinton joined the cost reduction parade in 1993. The National Performance Review proposed busting the GPO monopoly in printing by having printing done by private industry. The Review did not allow for the extra costs associated in writing specifications, negotiating, and monitoring performance, nor did it address the needs of people for access to government information. "The Clinton administration's review made a politically popular point of emphasizing improved customer services, such as faster, more accurate responses from the Internal Revenue Service and better performance by the U.S. Postal Service." 4 Despite good intentions, customer service at the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Postal Service is far from the Nordstrom level. The Review ignored the erosion in customer service that would result from the increased cost of government information to the user and the high probability that government information produced by the private sector would not be distributed to depository libraries. No administration that has taken on the "GPO monopoly" has acknowledged that 75 percent of GPO printing is done by private contractors. 

Fleeing and Fleeting Documents

The proponents of agency-based printing ignore the problems associated with fleeting and fleeing documents. Fleeting documents are printed by agencies in quantities sufficient for internal distribution and perhaps a few outsiders. If printed by GPO, these documents must stand muster. They are cataloged, made available to depository libraries and the public, and archived. 

Fleeing or fugitive documents are published and difficult to find. These documents are not cataloged by the GPO, not distributed to the FDLP, and not made available for sale. While some agencies pay lip service to the mandate to distribute to the depository libraries, recent administrations appear unconcerned about fulfilling the mandate. Francis Buckley stated that he doubts that agencies will contribute documents for distribution to the libraries because of the poor performance in FDLP document delivery by agencies currently holding waivers from the requirement to have all printing done at the GPO. OMB's proposed policy provides no incentive to agencies to obey the mandate to distribute through the Superintendent of Documents. 

Michael DiMario, the Public Printer, in his JCP testimony, cited a 1998 review of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) printing that "found that 78 percent of NIH's publications qualifying for depository distribution were not being provided." NIH currently holds a GPO waiver. Given the importance of NIH research activities for the health and well-being of the nation's citizens, the need for physicians and researchers to have quick access to NIH material, and the enormous and increasing amounts of money spent by NIH, it should be held accountable for making research results available to all through the FDLP.

Locating fleeting or fleeing documents is a horrendous task, especially when one does not know the issuing agency. Depository librarians can tell many stories about people seeking government publications with little information about the issuing agency. The librarian has the challenge of finding the document among the thousands published online and in print each year. The search cannot be carried out with a few keystrokes on GPO Access. Searchers can search FirstGov or agency by agency. Either technique can prove frustrating. FirstGov deals only with electronic documents and is based on keyword indexing. This type of system can yield hundreds of hits. FirstGov is efficient if keywords are not common. For example, a FirstGov search for "toxic substances" yielded more than 1,000 hits. A search for imports of scotch whiskey yielded 101 hits.

The GPO performs valuable services in cataloging, preserving, and archiving documents. GPO assures citizens that our history will not be destroyed. If fleeing and fleeting documents vanish, we will have lost part of our history and penalize future generations.


Most taxpayers will support the idea of efficient government and reduction of expenditures. Often it is difficult to see what happens to funds allegedly "saved" by cost-cutting efforts. Recent headlines about "creative" accounting and increased expenditures for a variety of government programs make $30-50 million seem like a raindrop in the ocean. When considered within the context of millions of people seeking and using government information, OMB's proposal does not make sense. The proposal, if enacted, will not save money. It is likely that costs will increase due to the costs associated with 600 departments writing specifications, managing bid processes, negotiating, and analyzing performance of private contractors.

The cost to users of government information will increase significantly. Users will consume more time in finding needed documents to answer questions, learn about an issue, help a business, or judge the performance of government. William Boarman, vice president of the Communications Workers of America, stated this concern: "By far, the most significant damage resulting from OMB's proposal would be the effect it would have on GPO's ability for ensuring citizen access to government information. For GPO, dissemination of government documents is a nonpartisan, virtually automatic process, which has been enhanced in recent years by expanded reliance on the Internet and other new technologies. That function is consistent with constitutional ideals, democratic principles, and the purposes and functions of Congress."

Cost cutting is popular among politicians in both major parties. They like to brag about how much they have saved the taxpayers. They usually fail to tell the whole story. In the case of printing and disseminating government information, politicians are not likely to reveal that cost cutting is a sham that will bring more harm than good to the nation and its citizens.

1 David Shribman. "Government's Publications List to Keep Shrinking," New York Times, September 4, 1981.

2 David T Cook. "Reagan Cost Cutters Take Snip at Printing Costs," Christian Science Monitor, November 2, 1983.

3 Jonathan Rowe. "Federal Data Go Private," Christian Science Monitor, September 24, 1990.

4 Ann Devray and Stephen Bare. Washington Post, September 10, 1993.

Mariam A. Drake's email address is:
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