The fine print of cutting government printing costs

With all of Washington looking for new ways to trim the federal fat, there’s yet another proposal to cut back on the amount of money spent on paper and printing.

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Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) think they can save taxpayers about $8 million by stopping the Government Printing Office from printing thousands of rarely-read copies of the Congressional Record. The bill would require the GPO to print just enough copies to provide printed archives of the record — about 111 copies, according to their estimates — plus any additional copies explicitly requested by lawmakers and the vice president’s office.

Coburn and Kohl’s bill would trim an in­cred­ibly paltry sum from the overall federal budget, but they’ve provided a detailed estimate worth reviewing. So, pardon the pun, but let’s read between the lines and examine the fine print:

The GPO spends about $28.2 million annually to print copies of the record; about 70 percent of the costs are related to equipment, while 30 percent (about $8.1 million) is spent on printing, binding and distributing the print copies.

The senators and the GPO disagree on how many copies are printed each day: Coburn and Kohl claim that about 4,551 copies are printed, while the GPO said it prints only about 3,720 copies, down dramatically from the 20,000 copies printed before the agency went online in 1994.

“We don’t produce any more copies of the Record than are requisitioned from us by the House and the Senate,” the GPO said in a statement.

Coburn and Kohl estimate it costs the GPO approximately $239 per original page of the record, or 10.7 cents on average per copy page. (The estimate fluctuates depending on the number of days Congress is in session and the legnth of each copy of the record.)

Again here, the GPO disputes the estimate, calculating it differently by saying that after the upfront printing expenses for the original copy it costs about 1.31 cents per page — much less than the 7 cents it would cost on average to print the record on a traditional laser printer.

If the mandatory printing of documents dropped from the current 4,551 (or, according to the GPO, 3,720) to the estimated 111 copies required for printed archives, it would cost just $198,000 to print the record, plus another $1,784 annually for each additional copy, according to Coburn and Kohl. The GPO would also use about 150 million fewer pieces of paper, they said.

The proposed bill would require the GPO to determine the actual number of copies needed for archival purposes. The agency said it’s examining the bill, but “there may be other impacts among the library, legal, historical, and other communities that receive and use the Record that need to be evaluated.”

A little confusing? Yes, but an example of how lawmakers are finding ways to pinch pennies — and how at least one agency is desperately hoping to hang on to its funding.

Agree or disagree with Coburn, Kohl or the GPO? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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