Hard Times for the GPO

In the category of things that have been taken for granted for too long, try the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO). For years millions of Americans have ordered or used the numerous pamphlets, reports, hearings and other government documents, led by the all-time government bestseller — “Infant Care.”

But now, hard times have befallen both the GPO and its consumers. Recent price increases have provided the most visible jolt.

“Infant Care” sold for 20 cents until a few years ago. Now it is going for a $1.00. Another widely distributed advisory, “Prenatal Care,” went from 20 cents in 1972 to the present $1.05. Subscriptions to the Congressional Record, the Federal Register, or monthly journals have more than doubled in the same period.

GPO officials point to paper costs, postage increases and other inflationary pressures. But there is more to theproblem than the usual “pass the buck” excuses so similar to the contemporary rationalizations of corporations.

GPO never has clearly developed a comprehensive policy to present to Congress so that its role can be shaped in the best interests of providing needed information cheaply to citizens. As a result it is wrung to and fro by congressional politics, special interests and its own fluctuating timidity.

Basic to this policy is whether costs should be kept to a minimum and the price subsidized completely by the tax base or paid by the individuals who order the publications.

Presently, under congressional requirement, more and more of the printing is being contracted to private printers, reversing a practice of in-house printing started by President Abraham Lincoln. In 1969, GPO’s own presses did 57 percent of its printing jobs; now it is down to 39 percent. A General Accounting Office (GAO) report released December 9 noted it would be considerably more economical to reorganize government printing at central GPO plants.

The GPO’s pricing policy suffers from several contradictions. By law the Superintendent of Documents is supposed to make publications available at cost plus 50 percent. Yet Congress has often asked the printing office to distribute materials free. Year after year, most government documents are distributed “free” to citizens who know whom to ask (such as their member of Congress) or other government agencies for internal or public distribution. Estimates indicated no more than 15 percent of all government documents are sold.

Here is the distribution breakdown for the past year: GPO sold 79 million copies of government publications, distributed free 65 million copies by request of congressmen or executive agencies, and sent another 14 million free copies to depository libraries. Millions more copies were distributed directly by members of Congress and by executive agencies.

The federal government always has paid more than 90 percent of total GPO costs anyway. In 1973, sales brought in about $30 million (losing $17 million) out of a totalGPO cost of $321.3 million.

These facts raise the question of why government publications aren’t totally subsidized to encourage farmers, consumers, the elderly, students and others to make use of these materials. Given a number of major economies which could be instituted with a heads-up public service philosophy, GPO could regain its pride and begin focusing its energies on its information mission.

The present GPO scene is one of low morale, long delays in processing orders and complaints, timidity in standing up to the gouging paper companies, reluctance to present the congressional Joint Committee on Printing with new and needed policies, and an almost studied inadequacy to let most Americans know what it has available.

Regularly, GPO sells for destruction (at about $30 a ton) publications which are not selling briskly because most people don’t know about them. In 1971 a Senate Small Business staff economist informed me that GPO had destroyed over 2,000 copies of a now classic hearing compendium on the automobile industry that was printed only 2 1/2 yearsearlier.

Why not discount these volumes for consumers instead of selling them for destruction, a GPO official was asked? Because the law stated that “a discount not to exceed 25 percent may be allowed to book dealers and quantity purchasers.” This has been interpreted and passively accepted to mean that no one other than these parties can be allowed a discount.

There is need for a vastly improved GPO. Citizens interested in working toward that goal can send their suggestions and information to my associate, Frank Warner, P.O. Box 19312, Washington, DC 20036.

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