Operations of the Government Printing Office have been marked by inflated costs, inefficiency, waste and lack of planning, according to a General Accounting Office investigation into the agency responsible for almost $1 billion in government printing.

While GPO uses private printers for almost 80 percent of its work, $150 million of printing last year at GPO facilities "might have been procured from commercial printers for as little as $75 million," the GAO found.

The six-month GAO inquiry, which was initiated last year by the Joint Committee on Printing and its new chairman, Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.), will lead to "major changes" at GPO, according to a Ford aide.

Yesterday, the newly installed head of GPO, Robert W. Houk, who carries the title of Public Printer, told the House Administration subcommittee on procurement and printing that he had "already begun to address many of the problems highlighted by GAO's review."

The House subcommittee was looking into GPO's high pricing of documents sold to the public, which some members of Congress believe is preventing wide dissemination of government material.

Houk said he had a group studying pricing and marketing but pointed out that the law required GPO to charge the public for documents other than the Congressional Record and Federal Register a price that reflects its costs "plus 50 percent."

As a result, he said, some private printers could reproduce GPO publications in their plants, sell them at a price below GPO's and still make a profit.

"Cost reductions are what I am after," Houk said yesterday in discussing ways to lower prices.

The GAO inquiry reported that the higher costs at GPO's central printing plant near Capitol Hill were caused by the plant's inefficiency. The plant produces the Congressional Record, the Federal Register, reports on congressional hearings, bills and other publications for federal government agencies.

Although the plant's equipment makes it "one of the largest, most diverse {printing facilities} in North America," the GAO found managers routinely scheduled work for high-cost weekends and left major press and binding machines idle "on the average of 53 percent of the time" during the week.

The equipment, GAO noted, was worked 50 of 52 weekends last year even though only about 8 percent of the work GPO received from Congress came late in the week and required completion by the following Monday.

Congressional sources pointed out yesterday that weekend work took place even while Congress was on recess. They noted that not only were GPO printing and mechanical workers called in for overtime work, but "administrative and management personnel" also worked, which added to costs.

GAO reported that paper waste, which last year was "at least twice the levels set by industry standards," added to the high production costs. A congressional source said that several years ago GPO "wrote off some $11 million worth of paper that could not be found."

The GAO investigation also criticized GPO procurement policies, noting that "too many poor-performing contractors continue to win contracts." It cited six contractors who were late on more than 25 percent of their awards but continued to get contracts. Part of that problem, GAO said, came about because GPO never followed up on contracts and did not collect quality performance information.

In a related matter, a GPO spokesman said it was up to Congress to change the decades-old federal law that requires the agency to provide to each member of the congressional press galleries who applies a free daily copy of the Congressional Record and a set of the permanent bound volumes of the Record when they become available.

Under the law, he noted, members of Congress and executive branch officials and agencies, federal judges and former senators and House members are entitled to receive the daily Record free. Overall, he said, that would require almost double the 13,300 copies currently distributed.

One hundred and twenty reporters currently receive the daily Record free, but a GPO spokesman said that after a news report appeared on the matter yesterday several members of the press galleries called to see if they could be added to the free distribution lists.