House Questions Future of Government Printing Office

On July 22, the House passed an appropriations bill that makes deep cuts and policy changes to the Government Printing Office (GPO), an agency that plays an important role in current information dissemination for all three branches of the federal government. The bill raises troubling questions about Congress's understanding of and commitment to GPO’s primary responsibility for making public documents available to the American people.

What is GPO?

Despite its name, GPO's responsibilities are not limited to printing: the agency is the official publisher of documents including the Congressional Record, bills, and laws, as well as the U.S. Code and the Code of Federal Regulations. GPO also maintains FDsys, a website that provides online access to many of these documents, and manages the Federal Depository Library Program, which distributes government publications to libraries nationwide. In addition, GPO undertakes projects to digitize historical government publications for free public access, including a recently approved joint project with the Library of Congress (LOC). These publications and programs provide the public with access to information about core functions of the federal government, including legislation and regulation.

Budget Cuts

The House Legislative Branch appropriations bill for FY 2012, H.R. 2551, passed on July 22. The bill cuts $27.3 million from the FY 2011 funding level for the agency – a 20.2 percent annual decrease, $40.4 million less than the agency's request. These cuts, which are considerably deeper than other legislative branch agencies face, would constrain GPO's ability to publish, digitize, and disseminate important public records. For example, GPO requested $5 million specifically to continue the development of FDsys, but the entire line item was cut from the bill.

Policy Changes

The bill also imposes several policy changes meant to limit costs and reduce GPO's responsibilities:

  • Prohibits distributing printed copies of the Congressional Record to member offices
  • Prohibits distributing printed legislation to member offices unless requested
  • Reduces the publication frequency of the Congressional Record Index from semimonthly to monthly
  • Removes responsibility for printing for the Architect of the Capitol

What Congress may have missed is that GPO's printing revenue subsidizes the agency's other activities, including preparing information electronically, so without additional funds for digital projects, a cut to the printing budget could make information more difficult to obtain. Indeed, instead of increasing funds for online public information, H.R. 2551 specifically targets cuts to GPO’s online projects. The net result is that the public will have less access to government information and documents.

The Future of GPO

Certain provisions of H.R. 2551 suggest that some members of Congress seriously question whether GPO is needed at all. Rather than simply reducing the agency's roles and capacities behind the rubric of cost savings, Congress needs to discuss how we are going to build and support the capacity to disseminate public information and data in the 21st century. Open government advocates argue that modernization and oversight of this function – a key element of enabling citizen engagement with government – should be resolved prior to making significant funding reductions that reduce GPO’s capacity to meet its responsibilities.

Modernization: According to GPO testimony, up to 70 percent of its costs are incurred before printing begins, including activities such as editing and layout. GPO is surveying congressional offices about their needs for printed documents in an effort to reduce its printing requirements. The House is also examining ways to reduce its printing requirements, but this will require significant changes in the way the chamber conducts its business or revisions to the relevant provisions of the public printing and documents statutes of Title 44, United States Code, to reduce the volume of congressional printing. Logically, these changes should have been made before funding cuts were proposed.

Oversight: As a legislative branch agency, GPO is subject to unique oversight requirements. GPO is overseen by the Joint Committee on Printing (JCP), a joint House-Senate committee that has been ineffective and opaque; for instance, the committee does not have a website. Proposals to abolish JCP and transfer its responsibilities to each chamber's administration committees date back at least as far as 1995, when then-Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-WA) and others proposed a bill to do so. While such a shift could result in more active oversight of agency activities, it could also create inconsistent policy and implementation between the Senate and House, as well as risk subjecting the dissemination activities to partisan battles.

A central repository of public information: The centralized publishing and dissemination responsibilities of GPO have allowed the agency to develop expertise and standards to ensure that government information will continue to be accessible for years to come. However, the decreasing costs of print and decreasing hurdles to electronic information dissemination have allowed agencies to operate increasingly independent of GPO. In addition, LOC has played an increasing role in the dissemination of congressional information, particularly through its Thomas system. Public access advocates are concerned that fully transferring and decentralizing responsibility for information publication to multiple agencies will result in inconsistent standards and formats, fragmented performance by agencies, and increased difficulty for citizens and researchers in tracking down activities and information generated from different sources.

H.R. 2551 previews the possibility of eliminating GPO entirely. Noting that "the Committee has some concern about the future of the GPO as a viable printing operation for the Federal Government," the report on the bill directs the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study "the feasibility of Executive Branch printing being performed by the General Services Administration, the transfer of the Superintendent of Documents program to the Library of Congress, and the privatization of the GPO" – options nearly identical to those proposed by former Rep. Scott Klug (R-WI) in 1995. The committee asks GAO to report back by January 2012.

The American Library Association (ALA) is asking to be consulted as that study proceeds. The ALA passed a resolution urging Congress to reaffirm GPO’s mission and fully fund the office. The association seems concerned that eliminating the GPO could impact the agency's mandate to disseminate public information to public libraries around the country. The Sunlight Foundation's Daniel Schuman writes that the real question is not what to do about GPO, but "how to improve how electronic information is distributed."

The core question of the GAO study should be whether moving GPO's responsibilities to GSA and LOC would strengthen the policy, oversight, and expertise needed for effective citizen access to public information or reduce the amount of information available to citizens seeking to engage government officials. These are the questions that need answers – before key funding decisions are made that could undermine the capacity of government to report its activities to the American people.

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