I mourn for the trees that fell in American forests to make this exercise in governmental nagging possible. -- President Gerald R. Ford on the Federal Register
Most mornings at 8:45, a person or two can be found waiting for a little-celebrated office on L Street to open so they can look at documents going on public display the day before they appear in Uncle Sam's rule book, the Federal Register.
A couple of years ago, an eagerly awaited Occupational Safety and Health Administration ruling had so many people coming by so regularly that several were invited to the Register staff's Christmas party.
"Somehow the law firms and the interest groups can just smell that stuff," said Director Martha B. Girard.
What they smell is the job security of lobbyists and policy junkies whose careers depend on the endless rules, regulations and announcements ceaselessly flowing out of Washington.
Monday through Friday, messengers from all over town -- from the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Soil Conservation Service, from the Coast Guard and the Committee for Purchase from the Blind and Other Severely Handicapped -- haul reams of paper to the Register's office. Three days later, in most cases, these presidential orders, federal rules, proposed rules, government meeting notices and other official statements appear in print, eventually to be mailed to libraries and government offices across the nation.
The volume of material is so staggering that minor miscalculations in how many Register pages the documents will take have meant that almost 50,000 blank pages were published during the last decade.
Long the butt of jokes about its curative properties for sleeping disorders, the Register has been trying to battle its reputation as a tome written by bureaucrats for lawyers and enjoyed by none.
Although budget constraints have caused it to drop a highlights feature and a dial-a-rule hotline, summaries and information-packed preambles still translate the meanings of such prose as: "Accordingly, part 17, Subchapter B of Chapter I, Title 50 of the Code of Federal Regulations, is amended as set forth. . . . "
"The regulatory language I can't defend, it's pretty heavy," Girard said. "But the preamble -- maybe I've been around here too long -- I think it's pretty clear."
Clear maybe, but not always a model of concision. The recent listing of the northern spotted owl as a threatened species took less than a page -- the preamble, however, filled 79.
The Register gives out books to bureaucrats on how to write rules, and officials often find themselves giving last-minute tutorials to those who have been in government so long they've forgotten how to speak to people who aren't.
The office conducts frequent workshops, which up to 75 people attend in Washington and other parts of the country, to educate the public about the Register as a resource. There is also a 113-page book on how to use the Register, which includes a note on how to use the book.
The Register -- which goes to 33,000 subscribers -- was thought up in 1936, not surprisingly, by a lawyer who was alarmed that the sudden growth of New Deal government was packing filing cabinets and desk drawers with paper faster than anyone could track.
That first year, 3,439 documents were received at the Register's office; last year, it was 30,126. The Register and its indexes averaged about 53,000 pages annually during the 1980s -- part of the Reagan-era push to reduce paperwork -- and down from the record 73,358 pages that came out of President Jimmy Carter's last year. The typical daily Register is about 200 pages thick.
Agencies have to pay for the space it takes to print their documents. At $375 a page, regulators like the Environmental Protection Agency can run up quite a tab. Agencies that submit printer-ready copy on a floppy disc can get a 30 percent discount.
While saving money was what Congress had in mind when it passed the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law, overtime is what it will be paying on Aug. 25 when a bare-bones staff opens the Register office to allow the legally required public display of the measure's latest version. Aug. 25, specified in the law, it turns out, is a Saturday this year.