Lobbyists try to stave off Treasury bureau bid to print foreign money

American Banknote Co., a venerable but financially weakened printing company founded in 1795, has hired two lobbyists from the firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips to stave off a bid by the federal Bureau of Engraving and Printing to begin printing money for foreign countries. Currently, the bureau--a subsidiary of the Treasury Department--is only allowed to handle printing jobs for federal-government entities. But in recent years, the bureau and its employee unions have been urging Congress to pass the Security Printing Amendments Act, which would allow the bureau to start accepting printing jobs for foreign countries and state governments. "From time to time, countries around the world come and ask for help and expertise, but we don't have authorization to do it," a bureau spokesperson said. "This sort of work would maintain the skills of employees and allow the bureau to test new techniques, without cost, that could be applied to future generations of U.S. currency as a way of combating counterfeiting." According to the legislation, the income from such printing jobs would offset the bureau's capital, labor and maintenance costs, with any surplus deposited in the government's general fund. Late last year--and with almost no controversy--the measure passed the House. This year, bureau officials have re-submitted the proposal to the Bush Administration, which must decide whether to urge its passage again this year. Either way, American Banknote--which prints credit cards, travelers checks and stock certificates for private companies as well as food stamps and postage stamps for the federal government--isn't taking any chances, deciding recently to retain lobbyists Robert J. Kabel and John Lucas Rose to fight the measure. "This would bring the federal government into competition with private companies, and there's no reason for the government to do that," Kabel said. Efforts to expand government agencies' ability to compete with private companies accelerated during the 1990s due to "reinventing government" projects, but those efforts prompted a backlash from pro-business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. American Banknote's situation is particularly precarious: Its parent company, American Banknote Corp., filed for bankruptcy in 1999 amid a decades-long shift from paper documents to electronic transactions. Bureau officials disagree that changing the law would harm private companies. "American Banknote is saying we're taking work away from them, but it's absolutely not true," the spokesman said. "No country has ever approached us and then, after we said we couldn't do it, turned around and hired American Banknote. They're not in a position to do the same kind of work. [Losing work or jobs] would be very, very, very unlikely."

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