When Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) decided to make public the personal jewelry receipts, canceled checks and love notes of deposed Philippine president Ferdinand E. Marcos, he asked the Marcos-hungry news media to pick up the printing costs -- $86 for a complete 2,000-page set.
When the House last year passed the most sweeping tax revision bill since World War II, it charged interested parties $44 for a copy of the bill and accompanying report.
Such costs were once considered unusual. Free handouts of bills, reports and hearing transcripts have traditionally been the junk food of Capitol Hill junkies, the lawyers and lobbyists and journalists and academics who like to scan the fine print and study the loopholes.
But now, under a proposed rule change, Congress is considering charging the public for the endless reams of paper it produces. The change was scheduled to take effect next Monday, but will be delayed because of massive opposition, haggling over pricing, and a possible change of heart by a key senator.
"It doesn't sound very American," said Eileen D. Cooke, Washington director of the American Library Association, which opposed the change from freebies to fees. "I guess we'll buy our laws by the pound in the future."
The library group's criticism was echoed by the American Council on Education, the American Association of School Administrators, and such public-interest groups as OMB Watch and the Standing Committee of Correspondents, the reporters' group that supervises the congressional press galleries.
The issue, they said, is public access to information, and a right to participate in the legislative process without regard to the ability to pay.
In a news release, OMB Watch, a private group that monitors federal budget cuts, said, "These restrictions on the ability of the public to be involved in the decisions of Congress are totally inconsistent with the fundamental principles of our democracy."
The change to a fee system for documents was proposed by the Senate Rules Committee and the Joint Committee on Printing as a way of dealing with a $2.98 million cut in the congressional printing and binding budget. That reduction, by 4.3 percent, was ordered as a result of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings balanced budget law.
Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.) chairs the joint committee that announced the change on March 14. In an April letter to the American Library Association, Mathias said that while he had "strongly supported the free and open flow of government information" since he was first elected to Congress, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings cuts "require sacrifices on the part of all of us."
The change appeared certain to take effect next Monday. But yesterday, a spokesman for Mathias said, "Senator Mathias has not made any final decision. He would like to see some additional information."
The spokesman added, "This is just one thing that is being looked at."
Under the committee's recommendations, as announced in March, documents available in the House and Senate documents rooms would be distributed free only to members and their staffs. The Government Printing Office would set up a sales plan through its bookstores, with the price of documents determined by size.
The printing office asked the secretary of the Senate to set up shop in a portion of the Senate documents room, in the basement of the Hart building.
The critics have argued that such a system would penalize nonprofit groups or those who cannot afford to pay. Many bills run hundreds of pages, and could be extremely costly.
Others fear that with congressional offices discouraged from mailing large numbers of copies to constituents, America's heartland may not receive copies of key bills until months after Congress has already acted, they said.
Meanwhile, news organizations said they think that charging for public documents will unfairly inhibit smaller news organizations that may not be able to afford to purchase costly bills and hearing transcripts.
"We're hoping that maybe all the voices [opposing the change] will keep escalating," Cooke said. "Hope springs eternal."