The government’s appetite for printing is waning fast, what with its massive records and documentation of the legislative process moving online. (BILL O'LEARY)

As politicians argue this campaign season over how big the government has grown, one federal agency has shrunk to its smallest size in a century: The Government Printing Office.

The office created by Congress during the Civil War to publish and disseminate the work of the three branches of government is down to 1,920 employees after a buyout that cut 312 positions in 2011.

“Our goal is to do more with less in serving Congress, the White House, Federal agencies, and the public,” Davita Vance-Cooks, the acting public printer, said in a statement this week announcing the reductions.

The smaller staff “will make GPO more efficient,” she said.

The printing office last year had targeted 330 employees — about 15 percent of its workforce — for buyouts and early retirement, and an additional 65 vacancies created by attrition will not be filled. The total of 312 departures is expected to save $17.9 million for the rest of fiscal 2012 and $23.9 million in fiscal 2013, officials said.

Like many agencies — from the Library of Congress to the Internal Revenue Service — the printing office is reducing its staff in response to budget cuts across the government. But the headquarters at 732 N. Capitol St. NW, which opened with 350 employees March 4, 1861, and employed 8,500 at its peak in 1972, has been buffeted by other forces.

The government’s appetite for printing is waning fast, what with its massive records and documentation of the legislative process moving online. In the 1980s, for example, about 25,000 copies of the Congressional Record rolled off the GPO presses every morning before they were clamped and trimmed on the bindery floor and sent to Capitol Hill.

Today it’s 2,800 copies.

“It’s been an evolution,” said Jim Bradley, assistant public printer. “Our workload has been reduced. We used to have hundreds of people using linotype machines. The departures have been very emotional.”

Some of the employees whose last day was Dec. 31 had started learning the trade at 18 and stayed at the printing office for 50 years. Over the years, many of their family members were hired to similar jobs as platemakers, pressmen, bookbinders, proofreaders and keyboard operators. In a bureaucracy of white-collar professionals, printing is one of the last blue-collar bastions in government.

“What used to take three or four people to do in an entire shift, I can now do myself in about 45 minutes,” said George Lord, a platemaker and vice president of Local 285 of the Teamsters Union, which represents printing office workers.

“The industry has changed,” Lord said, “but it has never stopped.”

The agency took a funding cut this year. Congress appropriated $126.2 million — nearly $9 million less than last year and $22.3 million less than President Obama’s budget request.

Since 1980, the workforce has shrunk gradually by 70 percent as computers have replaced linotype and offset printing.

The printing office is remaking itself, processing tens of millions of electronic passports a year for the State Department and other secure identification documents. It has also rebranded and overhauled its once money-losing bookstore in the belief that a digital file cannot entirely replace the touch, smell and feel of a book.