The Reagan administration is attempting to loosen Congress' historic grip over the government's printing business, currently running at a rate of more than $600 million a year.
The action has infuriated members of the Joint Committee on Printing, which for 92 years virtually has dictated the rules on government printing, and troubled supporters of the Government Printing Office, which serves as the bureaucracy's central printing agency.
"We could be going back to the way things were 150 years ago," groused David C. Sharman, staff director of the House Administration Committee. "Everybody will go back to their favorite printer, for political or whatever reasons, and the biggies will squeeze out the little printers."
Under rules set to take effect July 1, three major agencies -- Defense, General Services Administration and National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- propose to divorce themselves from longstanding printing regulations that have buttressed both the joint committee's and GPO's controls.
The proposed rules would let the individual agencies make many of the decisions the committee and GPO now make. If the three agencies are allowed to bypass the committee and GPO, the other agencies are likely to follow, congressional officials said yesterday.
The government's longstanding rules give the joint committee power to determine everything from the type of printing paper the government buys to the wages of printers at the GPO, one of Washington's largest industries. Currently, all government printing requests must be channeled through the GPO, which can determine what printing can be contracted to private printers and which jobs can be handled by a government agency.
Members of the joint committee, in a bipartisan letter signed by eight, earlier this month demanded that the three agencies drop their plans for new printing rules. But the agencies notified the panel Wednesday that they were proceeding and questioned both the committee's and GPO's ability to stop them.
Administration officials contend that is not likely to be the case and note that the Office of Management and Budget, which has trimmed the government's overall printing bills sharply under Reagan, would continue to exercise control over what the government prints.
But the Defense Department has argued in the memo given to the joint committee that a 1983 Supreme Court ruling striking down legislative vetoes makes clear that Congress cannot use its legislative powers to control administrative functions such as printing.
Staff members at the joint committee and OMB Watch, a citizen's group that monitors OMB actions, agreed yesterday that the federal law empowering the committee needs revision in light of recent court rulings. That isn't cause, they said, however, to strike down an established system of controlling government printing.
"Without some kind of congressional oversight mechanism, OMB's supervision of executive branch information activities will lead to less information for Congress as well as the public," OMB Watch said.
In a memo this spring, the Congressional Research Service noted that Congress insisted on direct control over printing in 1846 because it believed that was the way to end scandals over printing contracts. Committee powers were broadened in 1895 and have gone without major challenge until the 1983 court ruling.