The Hottest Book Drop in Town: Behind the Scenes at the Budget Release

Copies of the budget are prepared for binding at the Government Printing Office. Copies of the budget are prepared for binding at the Government Printing Office. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Budget drops aren’t what they used to be.

Before the age of the PDF, lines of reporters, lobbyists, and congressional aides used to wrap around the dusty-red Government Printing Office. Which is in itself saying a lot: The printing facility takes up a whole city block in Northwest D.C.

A lot has changed. 

At 11:00 a.m. Wednesday, 15 minutes before the 2014 White House budget proposal was released, only about 25 people were waiting in line. Aside from an enthusiastic communications official from the printing office who was announcing the time with the excitement of a New Year's party, the mood was calm. Most of those waiting were there to grab a hard copy because their bosses didn’t trust the digital distribution system to work properly. When deadlines are tight, an analog intern may be a better bet than depending on the government’s digital servers to hold up to the heavy traffic. 

“When everyone is trying to log on, usually the server is down completely,” said Nico Pandre, a Japanese newswire reporter and a three-year budget-drop vet. “Minutes can make a huge difference when we’re competing with other wire services.” He had just 15 minutes to meet an 11:30 deadline. For him, a server error would be a disaster. 

Mineko Tokito, another member of the Japanese media, had the distinction of being first in line, having arrived around 9:30 a.m., nearly two hours before the 11:15 release. “I was a little bit concerned so I came early,” she said. “Inside that budget are things that are relevant to Japan as well, especially on defense aid, that’s something that we are concerned about.”

This was her budget strategy (she too had an immediate deadline): Upon receiving her copy of the budget, she told me she would call her editor to give the top numbers. Then, would run — yes, run —back to her offices (just a few blocks away) so she could quickly finish a story for the morning edition of Yomiuri Shimbun, a newspaper.

Later, after the budget was released, I mistakenly tried to talk to a very flustered-looking and sweaty Japanese reporter who was violently thumbing through the pages of the budget. When it looked like he was done, I approached him but was quickly shooed away as he began another furious round of typing.

Others were there on purely gopher business. A group of four interns from a budget policy think tank particularly stuck out. They brought three rolling suitcases for the 90-pounds of budget they were assigned to bring back to their offices.

Their bosses "described it as a ‘field trip,’ ” one of them said (being interns, they said they had “no idea” whether they could talk to the press). “They said it was going to be three budgets and then that turned into nine. And one intern turned into four. It’s a little excessive. Better safe than sorry.” Regardless, they said, they were just glad to be allowed to leave the office. 

Minutes before the budget release, I walked into the main bookstore to observe the action. Weathered TV cameramen were making snarky comments such as, “This is no Justin Bieber release”' nerdy officials were making small talk such as, “That’s some good bedtime reading there.” Cameras collected B-roll of a stack of immobile books. Thrilling stuff. 

When 11:15 a.m. struck, there were no screams or cheers (I was hoping for confetti, or at least a 10, 9, 8 countdown). The line streamed in and people picked up the budget; they paid, and they quickly left. “It feels old-school,” Erika McManus, a cub reporter at Fox News, told me with a copy in her hands.

While the print release has a fun, official flair, the truth is that the majority of budget analyzers will be getting their copies via the Web. Last year, there were 25,000 printed copies. That's a pittance compared with 100,000 app downloads and 5 milllion PDF retrievals. 

“The quantity was probably a quarter of what it was from years back,” said John Crawfords, the production manager for the printing office, who has been working there for 48 years. “It has the same level of importance, it’s the same level of intensity--just the processes make it go more rapidly.”

The level of security on the books is obviously intense. No one can open the books before the official release. Even the printing office has an interest in pouring quickly through the pages, because its own budget is contained in those lines as well. 

“The budget talks about priorities for the entire government,” Davita Vance-Cooks, head of the agency, said. “So when it’s released we read it.”

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