It may be the ultimate crime for a Washington bureaucrat, but officials at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing acknowledged this week that, yes, they had run out of paper.
Not the paper on which the bureau prints the nation's currency, but the paper on which the Treasury Department agency prints many of the nation's best-selling stamps.
The shortage has upset postal officials who long have contended that the bureau is incapable of meeting the nation's stamp needs. Postal officials would say only that they "have experienced widespread and severe shortages" of certain stamps, especially ones bearing the discount rates used by bulk mailers.
Sheets of 15-cent Buffalo Bill Cody stamps, used on postcards, as well as rolls of the discounted rates for bulk mailings that have been presorted by Zip codes were said to be among the stamps in short supply.
The Postal Bulletin, an internal publication, disclosed the shortages, warning postmasters that the bureau had exhausted supplies of 25 denominations, including 8.4-cent stamps showing a wheelchair used by non-profit groups, 20.5-cent antique fire truck stamps and 21-cent railroad mail car stamps. The publication advised postmasters that they could urge mailers to use combinations of available stamps or sell stamps bearing "the next-higher denomination" at a lower price if they do not have sufficient stocks of the needed stamps.
The stamp shortage has also created headaches for some large mailers who say that letters bearing stamps tend to get higher response rates than letters bearing "postage paid" imprints.
Robert O'Brien, a vice president at the Time magazine customer service center in Tampa, said his operation "nearly had a crisis" recently when postal officials in Florida were unable to supply immediately the 3 million stamps that Time uses each month. The problem was averted only after postal officials "were able to scrounge up stamps around the country and get them to Tampa," O'Brien said.
Bureau of Engraving spokesman Ira Polikoff said the agency was embarrassed by the shortage and officials had no memory of any previous paper shortage. The bureau began printing the nation's stamps in 1893 and it has had a virtual monopoly since.
Last year, after a long-simmering feud between the bureau and the Postal Service surfaced, the agencies developed a five-year contract that will decrease the service's dependence on bureau-printed stamps. The agreement calls for private printers to supply more of the nation's stamps, especially the multicolored commemorative issues popular with stamp collectors.
The bureau is to remain the primary source of so-called "regular issue" stamps, those that have fallen in short supply. Polikoff said the bureau had reported its paper problem earlier this year after the bureau discovered it would run short.
Bureau officials encountered the problem after they discovered that they had to revise bids for new supplies of paper to print stamps by the intaglio printing process, Polikoff said.
The bureau attempted to overcome the shortfall by making interim, short-term purchases, but Polikoff said officials did not order enough paper. The requirement to rewrite bid specifications for the paper meant a two- to three-month delay in getting new paper, he said.
The new supplies are not expected to begin arriving at the bureau's 14th Street NW plant until Monday, although Polikoff said the bureau is urging suppliers to send a partial supply immediately.