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Good News/Bad News: Federal Edition

I've got some good news, and I've got some bad news.

First, the good news: The Government Printing Office's Federal Digital System (FDsys) recently added authenticated, digital copies of volumes 65-94 of the United States Statutes at Large, which covers 1951 through 1980 (the 82nd-96th Congresses). Previously, FDsys only had digital copies of volumes 117-121 of Statutes at Large, covering the 108th and 109th Congresses as well as the First Session of the 110th (2003-2007). To keep the good news flowing, according to an announcement posted to the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) Listserv, "Volumes 95-115, which spans from 1981 through 2002 (97th-107th Congresses) will continue to be added to FDsys in the coming weeks." In addition, all of the Statutes at Large volumes on FDsys are both browsable and searchable!

[Note: Not to be too confusing, but these newly added volumes are not found in the United States Statutes at Large collection, but in the Additional Government Publications collection.]

Now for the bad news: Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Herb Kohl (D-WI) have introduced a bill called "The Congressional Record Printing Savings Act of 2011". It calls for a reduction in the number of copies of the Congressional Record printed because "Print versions of the Congressional Record are costly and less relevant as we move towards more web based content."

Of course, one (of many) problems with this proposal is that the senators clearly do not understand the production (and purpose) of the Congressional Record. For example, in their press release announcing the bill, they claim that "The GPO annually spends over $8 million to print hard copies of the Congressional Record that are rarely used since these documents have been digitally available since 1994. Approximately 4,551 copies of the Congressional Record are printed daily . . ." (emphasis added). Then, in their additional background "factsheet", they estimate that only 111 copies would be needed for archival purposes (which approximates to the number of possible Regional Depository Libraries under the FDLP plus a few additional copies, although they do not explain how they came up with this number).

But this raises several questions: Does this bill deal only with the Daily Edition of the Congressional Record? What about the Bound Edition? (And which is the "official" version anyway? Most sources assume that, once published, the Bound Edition becomes the "official" version, especially since the text of the Daily Edition can be revised before it is published in the Bound Edition. See, e.g., The Bluebook, r. 13.5, at 130 (19th ed. 2010).) Considering that, except for three years where the Bound Edition is also available, FDsys only provides digital copies of the Daily Edition (even when the Bound Edition is available in print, probably because they don't have the resources to update the links or have just forgotten about them), what effect will this bill have on the Bound Edition?

The proposed bill would mainly effect four sections of the United States Code dealing with the Congressional Record. The amendment to 44 U.S.C. § 903 is negligible, and the deletion of 44 U.S.C. § 909 (which deals with providing a copy of the Congressional Record to Canada in exchange for a copy of their Parliamentary Hansard) is, most likely, not newsworthy (although it may not be good form and clearly would have little impact on cost-cutting). However, the other two affected sections deserve some attention.

44 U.S.C. § 906 deals with the gratuitous copies furnished directly to Congress and other entities of the federal government, and when they say "gratuitous", they mean "gratuitous"! Although I'm sure there was a purpose for it at one time, I do not understand why the Vice President would need, free of charge, 100 copies of the Daily Edition of the Congressional Record! I will agree with the good senators that this section is badly in need of amendment. And I don't have a problem with their proposed § 906(c), which mandates that the Congressional Record be made available electronically so anyone can view, download, and print it (presumably for free). But requiring the Public Printer to "determine the minimum number of copies . . . that are necessary . . . for archival purposes" (proposed § 906(a)(1)), and then print no more than that minimum number (proposed § 906(b)) is going too far! Surely, copies could be sold to interested parties, right?

Not if Sens. Coburn and Kohl get their way: Their bill calls for deleting 44 U.S.C. § 910, which currently allows the Public Printer to sell subscriptions to the Daily Edition and sell "current, individual numbers, and bound sets of the Congressional Record." This current section also requires that the cost be "based upon the cost of printing and distribution", which means the federal government should not be losing money on these sales. Wouldn't it be better for the country for Congress to strip down the gratuitous copies contained in current § 906 and require the Public Printer to raise the cost of subscriptions enough to make up the costs of any necessary gratuitous copies? And that was just one idea that just came to me! If truly necessary, I'm sure other, more intelligent people than I can come up with even better ideas to solve this problem (whatever the problem is). Clearly, the motives behind this bill go beyond merely cost-cutting.

For more information about the Congressional Record, see An Overview of the Congressional Record and Its Predecessor Publications, by Richard J. McKinney (2002, revised Jan. 2010).

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