Few may be hanging on Congress’s every word, but the GPO is still printing them


In 2012, then-acting public printer Davita Vance-Cooks greeted bookbinder Leon Thornton during production of the bound version of the federal budget. (U.S. Government Printing Office)

Last year David Cannon was a stripper; now he’s a digital pre-press engineer.

It’s not as big a change as you might imagine. It’s the same exact job. Cannon has worked for four years at the Government Printing Office making printing plates, a job he did commercially for three decades. The job once required people to impose negatives together by hand, a process known as “stripping.” But now that it’s done on a computer, the job title no longer made sense.

“The name change makes things a bit clearer,” said Cannon, noting that the GPO officially changed the title last year. “My son would put stripper on forms at school, and it made them teachers highly disappointed when I showed up.”

As the GPO — which began operations the day Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated — looks to transition into the digital age, name changes are a big topic of conversation. If the agency has its way, and if Congress can get its act together to hold a vote on the matter, it will soon be called the Government Publishing Office.

It’s necessary, said Davita Vance-Cooks, the head of the GPO, or the public printer, because printing has become just a portion of what the agency does. It is known mostly (if it is known at all) for printing the Congressional Record — the official transcript of all the yammering done in the House and Senate — and putting bills and budgets on paper so that they can pile up in Hill offices and on journalists’ desks or wherever else they go. But this is about as sustainable as printing the Yellow Pages (already Rep. Brad Wenstrup, a Republican from Ohio, has offered legislation that prohibits funding for delivery of the congressional daily calendar to member offices).


Machine typesetting arrived at the GPO, shown here in the 1930s, in 1904, finally clearing the obstacle of hand typesetting which had kept production levels down. (United States Government Printing Office)

A Congress that the public wants to read about and a printing press — both feel like vestiges of a bygone era. And yet, history unfolds incrementally, and no one else would bother to sear all of it onto a printing plate and ink it onto paper other than the GPO. But it’s not the only way the agency goes about capturing that history.

“The name is basically catching up to where the GPO already is,” Vance-Cooks said, noting that 1 billion documents the agency has published have been viewed or downloaded online, that it developed an app for reading the budget, and that it can create e-books. “It’s not that it wants to be the Government Publishing Office, it’s that it already is.”

But a name change may be easier said than done, for doing so requires a vote in Congress. In January, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) offered the bill, but it still awaits a vote before the Senate (not to mention another vote in the House). Congress may be producing thousands of pages of floor speeches for the GPO to print out, but it has not exactly been passing a lot of laws lately.

And there’s this: Surviving is going to take more than just a name change. Earlier this month, the GPO announced that it would seek to buy out the contracts of 100 employees for a lump sum of up to $25,000 a person. In 2011, the agency sought 330 people to take the same offer. At its peak, the GPO had 8,500 employees; today the workforce is about 1,850. With fewer people occupying the enormous brick building just north of the Capitol, some space is being leased out to other federal agencies, such as the Capitol Police and the Architect of the Capitol.

Even with the reductions in size, the GPO is hoping for a slight increase in money appropriated from Congress ($129 million for fiscal 2015). Direct appropriations make up about 16 percent of the agency’s budget, and the rest comes from reimbursements for work done (such as making passports for the State Department) or from sales of products to the public. The agency has also put out a request for information about the possibility of commercial development in the employee parking lot.

“It’s true: The GPO is much different than it was a decade ago,” Vance-Cooks said. “We are leaner and more agile. But the need is still there as ever. The public needs someone to keep them informed, someone to make sure the information is authentic.”

Recently, the job of running the agency’s day-to-day operations fell to John Crawford, who in March became head of plant operations at the GPO. And while his job requires him to oversee a shrinking staff and the implementation of new technologies, he’s not some young techie whippersnapper brought from the outside. He’s a lifer.

Crawford, 73, started at the GPO in 1966 as a bookbinder, without a high school diploma. (He was kicked out of school for being “wild.”) His grandfather worked at the GPO in the early 1900s, and aunts, uncles, a brother and even his son have worked there. In his nearly 50 years at the GPO, he’s worked his way through every level of management and learned that when it comes to change,“if you don’t embrace it, you can’t catch up.”

So for every new machine that comes in and limits the number of workers needed — whether it’s the new digital sewing machine or the printing press that uses lasers — Crawford said he welcomes the innovation.

“The workers will take the buyout or be trained on something else,” he said while giving a tour of the plant, noting that the decrease in workforce has been through attrition, not layoffs. “We take care of people here.”

As much as Crawford likes to talk about embracing the future, he wouldn’t have spent a half-century at the GPO if he did not feel that there are some things better left unchanged. A few floors up, above the new digital printing presses, a man with a white lab coat and matching mustache spends his days mixing paint made from carrageen moss (a type of Irish seaweed) into swirling patterns to be hand-pressed onto the side of government-printed volumes.

“Bookbinders — we’re the time keepers of the printed word,” said Peter James, who has been “marbling” for more than 55 years. “We make sure the printed word sticks around for the next however-long. I figure as long as there is the printed word, the bookbinders are going to protect it.”

Ben Terris is a writer in the Washington Post's Style section with a focus on national politics.
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