Members of Congress and persons who use federal information strongly criticized yesterday an Office of Management and Budget proposal to tighten the rules agencies must follow when they collect information and make it available to the public.
The critics said the plan, if implemented in its present form, would drastically reduce the flow of information to Americans who need it, and require them to pay for it more often. Rep. Major R. Owens (D-N.Y.), a professional librarian, said the "new book-burners have crept in silently on cats' feet, stealing access to information from our people."
But Douglas H. Ginsburg, administrator of the OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, told the House Government Operations subcommittee on housing and employment that the changes have been proposed to help reduce government waste and duplication -- and the paperwork burden on Americans.
Using its authority under the Paperwork Reduction Act, the OMB has proposed to require that agencies seek its approval before gathering information, conducting surveys and studies, and publishing documents. Ginsburg said agencies whose mission is to collect information, such as the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, would have no problem meeting the criteria.
But Owens said, "It appears that OMB has zeroed in on the cost of information while remaining cynically unaware of, or ignoring, its value." He added, "There are certain kinds of information this administration has chosen to cut back on," and noted, "Russia was concerned about its infant mortality rate, so it stopped publishing statistics."
Ginsburg reacted angrily to Owens' comments, saying he was "frankly disconcerted by your allegations" and "resented" the congressman's remarks.
The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), voiced "very, very serious concern" that part of the proposed wording of the OMB's guidelines would be "very restrictive." The proposal now says agencies would have to prove that the information they want to gather is "necessary," and that its distribution to the public is "essential" to the agency's "mission."
Making an agency prove that information is "necessary" and "essential" will have "not only a chilling effect but a killing effect" on its collection, Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) said.
Ginsburg said federal officials should be required to show that information gathering is "cost-justified" and that they have plans to use the data when they obtain it. As an example, he said labor statistics are needed, but information about the low birth weight of infants in certain kinds of hospitals is unnecessary unless an agency has specific plans to use the data.
"That example bothers me," Frank said. He added that "there must be some recognition" that agencies cannot always know in advance how they will use, or when they will need, information.
Thomas Gillaspy, Minnesota state demographer, said part of the value of information "is to tell us where we should be going in the future and what we should be doing," and thus it is impossible to measure today what the "future cost-benefit" will be.
There also is fear in Congress "that OMB is going to make policy decisions in the guise of efficiency decisions," Frank said. He cited the OMB's disapproval of sections of Veterans Administration and Housing and Urban Development Department mortgage insurance application forms. The OMB objected to questions seeking the race, ethnic background and sex of the applicants -- information the agencies said they needed to monitor possible racial and sex discrimination in those programs.
The OMB has since allowed the agencies to continue collecting the information, but Ginsburg said that decision may not be final. He said the OMB is still reviewing HUD's assertion that the information is not gathered by other agencies. The questions, Ginsburg said, "may still fail the test" imposed by the OMB: that the information has "practical utility" and is not duplicated by other agencies.