The Reagan administration now wants you to pay more to find out what the Reagan government is doing to you. Higher prices for government publications are being added to the government’s greater secrecy to exclude citizens from knowing about critical decisions.
Starting on Jan. 25, the Federal Communications Commission will refer you to a list of private corporations which are selling the regular distribution of FCC news releases. The price can be hundreds of dollars a year–a barrier even specialized libraries cannot afford. The Interstate Commerce Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission also refer requests to profit-making companies.
The Reaganites say they are doing this to save the taxpayers money and to stop the insatiable demands for their releases by Washington law firms. If you forget about the billions being wasted in Washington every month in inflated big-business subsidies and contracts, their arguments can sound plausible–until you discover that raising the ticket price for the public’s right to know may save a few hundred thousand dollars yearly at the expense of denying millions of people outside of Washington fundamental information that, as taxpayers, they have already paid to have produced.
Paul Thurston, documents specialist at the Detroit Public Library, gave voice to the proper ethic when he said: “The government has an obligation to let the citizens know what it is doing and to provide them with the information that their tax dollars have paid for. People should not have to pay againfor what their tax dollars have financed.”
The government historically has printed many useful pamphlets on baby care, cancer detection, energy conservation, crime, environmental health, consumer protection, and plant and farm animal care. Many such materials are no longer published and those that are carry a much higher price. For 10 months the White House has been reviewing these publications and yanking those that their business advisers do not like.
Price hikes are making the most basic government documents more like rare books. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, my high school could receive the Congressional Record for $12 a year. Many students, including myself, were introduced to the debates and actions of Congress because the Record was so readily available. By 1970 the price had risen to $45 a year, by 1979 it went to $75 a year, by 1980 it was $135 a year and by October 1981 the subscription cost an astronomical $208 a year. For most citizens and teachers such a price is out of the question, as it is for thousands of smaller libraries that cannot receive it free from their member of Congress.
The Federal Register, a daily publication of government notices and decisions, is going from $75 to $200 a year.
“We view this as an enormous cutback of our basic form of government, which relies on an informed citizenry,” says Carol Henderson of the American Library Association. “It is a very shortsighted way to save money,” she adds.
As prices go sharply up, demand from the public goes down. So the unit cost of the publications goes up more and there is less money for the Government Printing Office and Consumer Information Center to publicize and promote their publications.
Apart from the White House, which is pursuing this contraction of information flow almost as a matter of paranoia (the president reports that his greatest disappointment during his first year of office is not the situation in Poland or the economic recession but rather the leaks to the press), the buck stops at the Joint Congressional Committee on Printing. This committee has been moribund for years, waking up occasionally to rubber-stamp Congressional Record price increases. It has no understanding of the principle that the government’s first duty is to let the public know what it is doing in the cheapest and most convenient manner.
The chairman of the committee is Republican Sen. Charles Mathias of Maryland. He is now in his second and last year as chairman. I am asking him to take the leadership here and get some changes under way before shut-out government becomes reality for all but the powerful and well-heeled.