In the age of the iPad, some lawmakers are pushing the Government Printing Office to get out of the printing business.
But defenders of the agency say it may be too soon to go digital, and they worry the cost savings are being oversold.
Congressional austerity measures have already claimed $12 million from the printing office’s budget this fiscal year, and the tenor of negotiations on the Hill indicates more cuts are certain for fiscal 2012.
With a slew of bills aimed at curbing Congressional printing costs, the GPO has announced it will offer buyouts to 330 of its 2,200 employees.
“We certainly have great respect for what they do,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. “But at the same time ... we share this load in terms of finding ways to get on top of the budget.”
Testifying before a Thursday hearing of the House Administration Subcommittee on Oversight, Rep. Greg Walden urged Congress to go paperless as he sat behind a stack of Congressional Records, the House calendar, the Congressional Directory and other GPO-printed products.
“I would venture there aren’t a lot of Members who spend too much time reading the hardbound copies,” the Oregonian who led the GOP House transition quipped.
Subcommittee Chairman Phil Gingrey agreed it’s time to change House rules to require less printing.
“Our paper-based requirements have not been seriously and properly reformed and updated in decades,” the Georgia Republican said. “Now is the time to re-evaluate and revisit these laws and bring our information delivery system into the 21st century.”
Among the proposals brought before the committee was ceasing the mandatory printing of bills, which nets the GPO $1.7 million annually.
The Congressional Record, which averages 170 pages per volume and costs Congress more than $9 million annually to produce and print, could go digital, Members said. Same for the House calendar, which costs $2.3 million yearly, and the Congressional Directory, which costs about $300,000.
“People are changing jobs all the time. It’s printed once a year and it’s out of date before the ink dries,” said Walden, who is also chairman of the House Republican Leadership.
He suggested posting amendments online instead of printing each one and allowing for real-time markups that constituents could watch from home.
But Rep. Mike Honda, ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, tried to put the brakes on what he said might be hasty digitization efforts.
Testifying at the hearing, the California Democrat called the goal of cutting printing costs “laudable” but said Congress is “just not there yet.”
“As we explore ways to modernize Congressional printing, let’s make sure we don’t somehow treat [the] GPO as villains,” Honda said. “We could not function without the Congressional Record every morning, in both printed and electronic form, and other Congressional documents too.”
While the Congressional Record is expensive, 68 percent of the cost is incurred before a single page is printed. Moreover, the GPO prints bills at about 5 cents per page, while House offices would pay 7 cents per page — a cost Honda said could add up if offices were left to their own devices.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, ranking member on the House Administration Subcommittee on Oversight, also suggested that for meaningful reform both chambers would have to be on board.
“If the Senate doesn’t join us in modernizing, the value in cost savings are going to be more limited than they otherwise would be,” the California Democrat said. “I think in addition to reaching out to users, we really need to reach out also to the U.S. Senate, which may be a little behind us in the embracing of technology.”
Hoeven indicated that will be taken into consideration when the appropriations process moves to his chamber.
“Let’s look at where we can do it and make sure people feel good about it, honor some of the traditions, but find some ways to save some cost,” he said.
Later this month, the results of a House survey on digitization will come in. Offices were asked which publications they think should stop being published and to rank each from one to five in order of importance.