As a high school and college student in the Fifties, I delighted in requesting materials from my government. What was not held secret was available and at no charge. I would write my Senators and Representative and receive posthaste copies of Congressional hearings and reports on all variety of subjects. From federal agencies — such as the Department of Labor, Federal Trade Commission and many others, I would receive special studies, testimony, statistics and some reports that were years old but still in stock.
Oh, how Washington has changed. Recently, I requested the testimony of William Seidman in his appearance before Congressional Committees during the last year. Seidman, a national television news fixture, is head of the Resolution Trust agency that is taking over failed Savings & Loans and trying to sell their assets to reduce the horrendous costs of the S&L bailout.
Here was the Resolution Trust’s reply. “You can have them, but it will cost $70 for copying expenses.” Well, well. First the taxpayers pay for the Resolution Trust and its staff, then the taxpayers have to pay for the wreckage of the hundreds of defrauded and overgambled S&Ls — estimated at $500 billion — and now the taxpayers are told to ante up to pay for the words of the Resolution Trust Chairman to Congress about their handling of the wreckage. I’ve heard of taxpayers having to pay twice for their government, but thrice??
There has been an increasing practice over the past twenty years to find new ways to keep information out of the hands of the people who’ve paid for it already. One way — especially under the Reagan regime — is to price the materials beyond the reach of most people or not to organize the information in a usable fashion in the first place.
Not only did short advice pamphlets on baby care or hyperactive children quintuple in price, but the basic publication reporting on federal regulations and proposed changes went through the roof. The Federal Register. as it is called, went from $50 to $300 per year between 1980 and 1902 and now is $340 a year.
Remember the old saying, “You’re presumed to know the law.” Are you presumed to have the money to know the law, as well?
The Congressional Record was $45 a year in 1978. Now it goes for $225 a year. These prices have vastly overtaken any inflation index. Many libraries cannot afford these basic periodicals.
Last month, Cong. Wm Bates (D-CA) held two days of hearings in Washington to find out how the government is denying citizens the right to know beyond the policies of secrecy. He got more than a few earfuls.
The Government Printing Office — established by Abraham Lincoln -routinely shreds reports and other documents because they are not selling. Apart from poor promotion, the GPO does not press Congress for authority to give these reports away. Major studies of the automobile industry and 1500 copies of the Special Prosecutors report on the Watergate scandal were examples of what is being shredded.
White House policy often does not allow information collected by agencies to be put in a form for easy distribution because of industry objections. the CAR BOOK was requested by 3 million people in its only year of publication by the Department of Transportation ten years ago. Reagan banned it. But the Department still collects the safety and fuel efficiency data by make and model. It has been left up to a private publisher to sell you a book for nearly $10 that you once received free.
It gets worse. Suppose you want to receive copies of decisions, and press releases from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on a regular basis. The FCC will send you a sheet listing private companies, who will be pleased to service you. One such firm charges $1375 per year for all FCC releases plus the FCC Digest. They all used to be without charge in pre-Reagan Washington.
There is a booming industry of firms who take government information you have already paid to assemble and then sell it to you at exorbitant prices because the agencies have stopped providing this information at no charge to interested citizens. These firms now constitute a strong lobby against any restoration of the rights to obtain these materials at no charge so that taxpayers do not have to pay twice.
For the more sophisticated computerized data, the private company charges can go into thousands of dollars for sets of information. Privatization of electronic data is now protected by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget from any “competition” by the government agency that collected this information in the first place.
What about the media? Are they not standing up for our rights to pay for government information only once? Well, not really. You see, the agencies make sure that reporters and editors do not have to pay for these publications and reports. So the media loses interest in any crusade, eve one built around the principle that information is the currency of democracy.