Given the magnitude of this city's current preoccupations -- weapons of mass destruction, the 1948 presidential election -- it may seem eccentric to call attention to a skirmish between two abbreviations, the OMB and the GPO, of which most taxpayers know little and care less. But because taxpayers do pay, they have a stake in the fight the Office of Management and Budget recently picked with the Government Printing Office.
The OMB won. But so did the GPO. And all taxpayers. This is a story involving, by Washington standards, small sums, but a large principle and potentially large sums.
Of the government, as of individuals, the old axiom is true: Life is a series of habits occasionally disturbed by a few thoughts. Government's habits are reinforced by its insulation from competition. But Mitch Daniels, director of the OMB, bristles with ideas, one of which is that many government agencies would perform better if required to compete for jobs with private-sector providers of comparable services.
He recently decided to practice what he preaches, regarding that for which he is uniquely responsible, the budget for fiscal 2004. He directed that the job of printing the budget be put out to bid. This directive amounted to mild civil disobedience, because the law confers upon the GPO a monopoly on printing for federal agencies.
Congress in the 1860s mandated that all executive branch agencies give their printing business to the GPO. But nine years ago Vice President Al Gore's task force on "reinventing" government called for the elimination of this monopoly. It argued that the monopoly has lost whatever justification it had "when printing was in its infancy, the government was tiny, there was no civil service and corruption flourished."
Besides, the Clinton Justice Department reached the not-startling conclusion that the law mandating the monopoly is unconstitutional. It violates the separation of powers by vesting executive power in an agency, the GPO, which is a congressional entity, controlled by the Joint Committee on Printing.
In ordering competitive bidding on printing the budget, Daniels cited a 1926 Supreme Court ruling, arising from a dispute involving Woodrow Wilson, that presidents do not have a constitutional duty to enforce laws they deem unconstitutional. And Daniels noted that every president since Eisenhower has, in statements issued in connection with bill signings, stipulated that certain unconstitutional provisions would not be executed.
Without using the dreaded P-word ("privatization"), and asserting the principle that the OMB does not care who wins as long as taxpayers do, Daniels sought bids from private printers and the GPO for the budget printing job. And the winner is . . . the GPO.
So nothing has changed? Not exactly. Last year the cost of the GPO's printing of the fiscal 2003 budget was $505,370. Now the GPO offers to do the 2004 budget for $387,000, a savings of 23.4 percent. Considering that the GPO charges federal departments and agencies more than a half-billion dollars a year for printing and duplicating, some serious money can evidently be saved.
Now, imagine applying this process across the spectrum of government agencies. The Bush administration is not just imagining that. It has a plan to save money and improve performance by putting out for bids the work -- from building maintenance to food services to making eyeglasses -- done by as many as 850,000 government workers, almost half the 1.8 million-member federal civilian workforce.
Public employee unions are angry about this, but their unhappiness may amount to a damning confession. Those unions seem to be assuming that Bush's plan will mean large losses of public jobs. Hence those unions must be assuming that the GPO's success was an aberration -- that much more often than not, private-sector entities will trounce public-sector entities in competitive situations.
Such damning confessions are not new. The public education lobby, and particularly the teacher unions, oppose school choice programs by arguing that if parents are given a choice between public and private education, there will be a flight to the private sector. But surely it is possible that some public school systems, confronted with enhanced competition from private schools, would respond as the GPO has done, substantially improving their performance.
True, the Bush plan would result not only in lower costs, but also in many -- perhaps hundreds of thousands -- fewer public employees, and public employee unions are among the most important contributors to the Democratic Party. But the fact that a plan for better government is also good politics for a particular party is not a defect of the plan, or of the party.