In a recent op-ed, conservative columnist George Will called attention to "a skirmish between two acronyms, the OMB and the GPO, of which the vast majority of taxpayers know little and care less." But this "skirmish" involves the first step in a war by Bush's White House to destroy civil service protections for government employees across the government and privatize large swathes of public services.
What is involved is a recent decision in October by the Office of Management and Budget to try to bypass the nonpartisan Government Printing Office (GPO) and put the printing of the federal budget up for bid.
Undermining Fair Contracting: By itself, this is a minor change -- although it violates a law passed by Congress in the 19th century to avoid nepotism and corruption in government contracting for printing. By preventing special interest deals between individual agency heads and friendly corporations, the GPO establishes fair contracting rules and makes sure that key libraries receive copies so that the public has full information on what its government is doing.
But the Bush White House has a plan to save money and improve performance by putting out for bids the work -- from building maintenance to food services to making eyeglasses -- done by as many as 850,000 government workers, almost half the 1.8 million-member federal civilian work force.
This is just the most recent shot in a war that the Bush administration is mounting against the civil service. The Homeland Security Bill was the first round in this war on labor -- mislabelled a "war on terrorism" since this agenda has nothing to do with American security.
What is at stake in the fight with the GPO is that the Bush administration wants its agencies free to cut private deals and cultivate corporate donors. With hundreds of billions of dollars dolled out at the whims of various agencies, this will give the Bush administration the opportunity to demand "pay to play" political contributions from corporations across the country.
While the GPO does most of its printing through private companies, the coordination of that printing is done by civil service employees and done in a way that is considered fair by almost all private companies involved. As a recent article in a magazine of the printing industry argued:
"[P]rinters generally support the existing system, because GPO ensures that printing firms throughout the country have a fair chance to compete for the government's business. GPO has many problems that should be addressed immediately. However, we should not reduce the fairness that is available in the current system that allows printers of all sizes to compete for printing from our government Commercial printers don't seem to want this change and more than three quarters of the printers doing GPO work are small operations who stand to lose this work if executive branch agencies take over procurement."
And this fairness issue is crucial considering the volume of information involved. More than 30.1 million printed publications were distributed in fiscal year 2001 by GPO, and there were more than 355 million downloads of government online information from GPO Access.
But hey, the Bush proposal at least promises lower costs and more competition, right? Well, not exactly, since the change proposed requires only that individual agencies put large jobs up for bid.
As Government Executive Magazine recently noted:
"80 percent of the printing orders that agencies submit to GPO are worth under $2,500. The proposed rule would require competition only for jobs worth more than that amount. The vast majority of printing now handled through GPO's open, intensively competitive procurement system will no longer be available on a competitive basis."
The disappearance of public information: And as for the public, a lot of information would just disappear.
The proposed rule would also order agencies to send copies of publications to the printing office for distribution to public libraries. That requirement already exists, but librarians say many documents don't come to them when agencies print documents themselves or go around the printing office.
One industry source admitted, "The rate of missing documents is already on the rise because employees are not using GPO and they forget to follow procedures to get the document in the public domain."
As is clear, the Bush White House is actively hostile to the public knowing what the administration is up to, so if the GPO isn't keeping public libraries up-to-date on what the government is printing, all the better.
So we will soon have agencies with their private pot of contracts, many offered without a bid to favored political donors who all can "conveniently" forget to even inform the public of what they are printing. And all in defiance of federal law.
And this is just the test run for turning White House agencies into a complete center for corporate spoils, doling out jobs and contracts as needed to cement political contributions and political power.
The Bush Power Grab: In this little OMB-GPO spat is the seeds of a power grab by the Bush White House of dimensions we have not seen since the civil service was introduced in the 19th century. It is an assault on fairness in favor of corporate corruption, an attempt to undermine public availability of government information, and a war on public unionism.
In the end, the GPO itself "won" the bid to print the federal budget, but the Bush administration established the principle that it could defy the congressional law and put contracts up for bid itself. It's a first step but watch this war on the civil service escalate in the coming months.
Nathan Newman is a longtime union and community activist, is a national vice president of the National Lawyers Guild, and author of Net Loss [Penn State Press] on inequality in the Internet economy. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.nathannewman.org.