OMB ignores Congress, may bypass printing office

Ignoring a congressional mandate to use the Government Printing Office, President Bush's budget director this week announced that private contractors may print the fiscal 2004 budget.

Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels signed off Monday on a plan for the White House Office of Administration to seek bids from private printing firms for the budget. The move is part of Daniels' ongoing push to end a century-old rule requiring most federal agencies go through the printing office for most printing products and services.

Daniels' action comes after Congress specifically ordered OMB to use the printing office for the fiscal 2004 budget. Lawmakers included the order in the last two short-term funding measures for the government. In two previous funding measures approved this month, lawmakers also ordered executive branch agencies to continue using the printing office. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., a member of the Joint Committee on Printing, challenged Daniels' plan to skirt the orders.

"I am mystified by OMB's determination to defy the Congress, which has reaffirmed its commitment to centralized printing four times in the past three weeks," Hoyer said. "I'd advise the administration to think long and hard about what it is doing. There is bicameral and bipartisan determination to see that the Bush administration follows the law of the land and I am among those focused on this."

Daniels said the executive branch is under no legal obligation to follow Congress' order. He cited a 1996 Justice Department opinion that laws requiring the use of the printing office are unconstitutional infringements on executive branch power because the printing office is part of the legislative branch. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Sheldon Bradshaw reaffirmed that opinion in an Oct. 22 letter to the White House. "Executive branch officers would face no realistic risk of liability for failing to abide by" the congressional order, Sheldon said.

Government Printing Office spokesman Andrew Sherman said the agency has no public comment on OMB's action.

In his announcement, Daniels said that last year, OMB paid the printing office $4,067 in premiums "simply to contract out for printing the budget volume of the president's budget." That charge amounted to 7 percent of the $58,000 cost of the printing job, Daniels wrote. Governmentwide, such charges cost the federal government $50 million to $70 million a year, he said. By seeking out printing services on its own, OMB could avoid such charges and could choose a printer based on quality, cost and timeliness-not just cost, he added.

Officials at the Government Printing Office have disputed OMB's figures, saying that agencies that go out on their own will actually spend more money on printing through duplication of effort and failure to get volume discounts. The printing office already contracts out much of the work that agencies send its way. It is also working out a "best value" approach to contracting to respond to criticism that it awards jobs to the lowest bidders, who don't always produce the best quality work.

OMB and the printing office have blamed each other for a misprint in the fiscal 2003 budget that erroneously assigned minus signs to budget figures, prompting the last-minute publishing of errata to correct the mistakes, according to sources outside OMB. But Daniels' announcement of the plan to go around the printing office for the fiscal 2004 budget made no mention of that disagreement.*

In fact, Daniels sent a letter this week to the Government Printing Office, encouraging the office to bid on the budget work, just as private contractors would.

This May, Daniels issued a directive that will let federal agencies seek alternatives to the printing office, once officials make a change to the Federal Acquisition Regulation. Daniels noted in the directive that agencies could still acquire printing services through the printing office if they decided the office offered the best value.

The directive sparked a backlash from printing office officials and lawmakers, who have attempted to derail Daniels' effort all year. Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., chairman of the Joint Committee on Printing, has questioned the executive branch's ability to declare a law unconstitutional. Dayton was in Minnesota Wednesday and could not be reached for comment, a spokesman said.

* Note: OMB officials said Thursday the printing error was caused by a software glitch at OMB, and that the printing office helped resolve the problem.

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