Printing office to retain monopoly power

The Government Printing Office will continue its century-old monopoly on federal agencies' printing jobs, under an agreement the Bush administration announced Friday. The agreement ends outgoing Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels' year-long quest to let agencies avoid using the printing office as their middle man.

Daniels agreed to let the printing office keep its monopoly. He even agreed to curtail or eliminate current executive branch printing operations that do some of agencies' printing work in-house. In return, GPO chief Bruce James agreed to set up a Web-based ordering system that will let government buyers deal directly with private printers, which will negotiate discounted overarching agreements with the printing office. The system is modeled after the General Services Administration's supply schedules. The printing office will collect a 3 percent rebate from printers to fund the cost of the system.

"It gives agencies more freedom and flexibility in selecting printers," James said.

For the next year and a half, most agencies will continue to buy printing as they have for years. They'll contact the printing office, which will find a printer to do the job for the agency. In October this year, the printing office will launch a demonstration project to test the new Web-based ordering system at one agency that has yet to be determined. Then in October 2005, the ordering system will be expanded governmentwide, allowing agencies' buyers to directly contract with private printers. Agencies will still be able to purchase printing through GPO's existing procurement program, James said. Many agencies are losing printing specialists to retirement and not replacing them, James said, so the GPO's printing procurement program may be a better option for some agencies than the electronic system. Agencies will be able to choose to use one or the other.

"GPO will become much more focused on packaging services and selling those services to agencies as opposed to sitting back and waiting for the phone to ring and taking orders," James said. "It's a new GPO."

According to the agreement between Daniels and James, the executive branch "will substantially limit the circumstances where agencies may rely on in-house or other executive branch printing operations." There are about 1,400 blue-collar printing specialists and white-collar printing management specialists in the executive branch, according to statistics on FedScope, the Office of Personnel Management's workforce Web site. Those employees may face job cuts as a result of the agreement.

In May 2002, Daniels announced that the executive branch would stop following a legal requirement to use the printing office and predicted the government would save up to $70 million a year by avoiding the printing office's middle man fees. He also predicted more satisfaction with printing jobs, since many printing customers across government had complained to OMB about the GPO's service. Under Daniels' direction, the Federal Acquisition Regulation Council issued a proposed rule that would have let agencies contract with printing firms on their own, avoiding GPO and its fees of 7 percent to 14 percent per job.

Over the next several months, Daniels' drive to change how printing jobs are purchased turned into an argument over constitutional law, separation of powers, government efficiency and public access to federal information. Then-Joint Committee on Printing Chairman Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., said the Bush administration would break the law if it avoided the printing office. Administration officials contended it was unconstitutional for the legislative branch, of which the printing office is a part, to force the executive branch to buy printing through GPO. When the acquisition council proposed its rule, librarians across the country argued that federal documents would not make their way to libraries unless government printing was handled centrally by GPO. The proposal would thus limit the public's access to government information, the librarians said. The Interagency Council on Printing and Publication Services, which represents printing specialists across the executive branch, said it opposed Daniels' plan. The council said the change would actually cost the government more money because agencies would have to set up duplicative printing procurement offices and devote staff members' time to procurement actions that the printing office handles now.

Daniels' plan also ran into trouble at the General Accounting Office, which issued a decision in December arguing that executive branch agencies were indeed bound by law to use the Government Printing Office.

Patrice McDermott, a government relations specialist for the American Library Association, said the association supports the printing agreement because the agreement, particularly the crackdown on agencies' in-house printing, will help make sure libraries get government documents. The GPO has estimated that half of all federal documents are "fugitive documents" that don't get sent through the GPO to libraries. "This really begins to address the fugitive documents issue and it moves us a good way toward ensuring better public access to government information," McDermott said.

The acquisition council will now develop a new set of regulatory changes to implement the agreement, discarding the proposed rule that would have eliminated GPO's monopoly.

Daniels has resigned as OMB director. The agreement with GPO comes on his last day in office.

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