Secretary of Commerce William Daley placed a routine telephone call Aug. 11 to Republican Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, alerting him that the government is closing a small, obsolete and wasteful federal facility in his northern Virginia congressional district. According to the secretary, Davis did not complain. Consequently, even old Chicago political hand Daley was unprepared for what happened next.
Davis issued a statement assailing the "unexpected announcement" of an "ill-conceived plan" to shut down the 50-year-old National Technical Information Service (NTIS) in Springfield, Va., warning that the closure endangers America's "technology resources." In fact, the function of the NTIS as a clearinghouse selling government scientific documents and reports has been superseded by the avalanche of free information on the Internet. With its services no longer in demand, the agency has ceased to be self-sustaining and is now a multi-million dollar money drain.
For a Republican Congress that once wanted abolition of Cabinet-level departments and other big agencies, getting rid of the NTIS ought to be easy. Moreover, Tom Davis is a rising light in the party, a moderate conservative who has just become House Republican campaign chairman. Yet, his reaction betrayed the dirty little secret that the Republicans are as addicted to government pork as the Democrats -- particularly after assuming majority status in 1995.
The GOP mantra has been that a tax cut is essential because otherwise the surplus will be spent, but Republicans seem hardly less susceptible to that temptation than the Democrats. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a close ally of Davis, is making a valiant effort to hold down appropriations, but government and spending continue to grow. The story of the NTIS reveals what life's really like in Washington.
The NTIS was created in 1950 to collect and distribute all kinds of scientific information and more than three decades later, in the Reagan administration, was turned into a profit-making enterprise. But then came the Internet, leading the Commerce Department's Inspector General (IG) to report in March: "Federal agencies are increasingly bypassing NTIS as a distribution channel, instead offering their publications directly to the public over the Internet."
An example: Last November, the NTIS offered to sell the first annual report of the government's working group on electronic commerce for $25.50 a copy. But the same report can be downloaded from Commerce's web page for nothing -- absolutely free. The result is that an estimated $47 million in revenues for the NTIS during the current fiscal year dropped by over 30 percent down to $30 million.
That's why the agency has not returned a profit since 1993, and yielded $5 million in red ink for the past five years. To offset its losses, the NTIS has tried to diversify by seeking what the Commerce Department calls "business opportunities." But the IG shakes his finger at this because "it risks competing against private businesses."
This ought to be heavenly music for a Republican, especially one as astute as Davis. Instead, the congressman declared: "This proposal shows a clear disregard for the approximately 260 NTIS federal employees." That protest about sending these civil servants into the hard, cold world raised Daley's eyebrows. In Davis's prosperous district across the Potomac from Washington, the unemployment rate is 2.3 percent in Fairfax County, and 1.8 percent in Prince William County.
Bill Daley, who grew up in ward-level politics, should know the professional politician will fight for any government facility in his constituency no matter how small or unjustified. The NTIS is hardly a budget-buster, but Republican resistance to its removal recalls abandoned dreams to downsize government by the famous GOP freshman class of '94 -- Davis included.
Another '94 freshman, Rep. Thomas Coburn of Oklahoma, in the final years of his self-limited three terms, is trying hard to restrain the pork lust of his fellow Republicans. He has made some progress in holding down appropriations while invoking the anger of the old bulls on the Appropriations Committee, but he is the first to admit that he is falling short. The sign that the Republicans are really serious will come when congressmen as outstanding as Tom Davis can accept the need to strip away waste, even when 260 constituents will lose their jobs.
(c) Creators Syndicate, Inc.