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MSU scholars find $21 trillion in unauthorized government spending. Agencies disable links to key documents
I visited the MSU Today news site for the headline about massive unauthorized spending happening at the Department of Defense and Housing and Urban Development. That in and of itself was troubling. But what really drew my attention was in the 2nd paragraph where it stated that the agencies’ Inspector Generals(!) — which are supposed to be the watchdogs of their agencies! — had “disabl[ed] the links to all key documents showing the unsupported spending” and the parenthetical note about the researchers having downloaded and saved their documents locally. Read more of the story at USAWatchdog.
This is the reason why libraries need to get on the ball and become active in digital collection development. Professor Skidmore luckily downloaded and made the documents available. But as long as govt publications are only available on .gov websites and Title 44 regulations for executive agencies to make their documents available to the FDLP are ignored by agencies and the OMB, then this kind of thing will continue to happen. Whether it’s 1 document or 100TB of data, FDLP libraries owe it to themselves and their local communities to do this kind of work. I’m now mulling about how to best provide space for the documents that my library’s researchers download to do their research.
Earlier this year, a Michigan State University economist, working with graduate students and a former government official, found $21 trillion in unauthorized spending in the departments of Defense and Housing and Urban Development for the years 1998-2015.
The work of Mark Skidmore and his team, which included digging into government websites and repeated queries to U.S. agencies that went unanswered, coincided with the Office of Inspector General, at one point, disabling the links to all key documents showing the unsupported spending. (Luckily, the researchers downloaded and stored the documents.)
[Editor’s note: Bernadine Abbott Hoduski has generously contributed the following article about the proposal to abolish the Joint Committee on Printing in the draft bill to reform Title 44 of the U.S. Code. No one is better placed to help us understand the importance of the JCP. She is a (retired) Professional Staff Member of the Congressional Joint Committee on Printing (21 years), the author of “Lobbying for Libraries and the Public’s Access to Government Information”, Rowman Publishing, ISBN 0-8108-4585-7, a former depository librarian, a member of the Depository Library Council to the Public Printer from 1973 to 1974, and one of the founders of the ALA Government Documents Round Table.]
THE CONGRESSIONAL JOINT COMMITTEE ON PRINTING (JCP) SHOULD BE KEPT AS THE NATION’S GUARDIAN OF PUBLIC ACCESS TO FEDERAL GOVERNMENT PUBLICATIONS AND INFORMATION
by Bernadine Abbott Hoduski
The Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act (ACMRA) H.R. 4631 was introduced yesterday by Representative Mike Quigley. If passed, it will require that all Congressionally mandated reports be deposited in a publicly accessible database maintained by the GPO. For more background, see Daniel Schuman’s writeup and background. The Washington Post wrote about the problem a few years ago titled “Unrequired reading.” Here’s the ACRMA bill text. 38 organizations, including FGI, wrote a public letter endorsing the bill.
The most interesting piece in the bill to me — well other than the requirement of executive agencies to deposit ALL mandated reports with GPO! — is section 4 subsection b, which directs OMB to issue guidance to agencies on implementing the act. My hope is that this is another opportunity to reform OMB circular A-130, which we here at FGI have suggested could be updated to better represent the needs of libraries and the FDLP.
The Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act was introduced yesterday in the House and Senate, thanks to the tremendous leadership of Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Sens. Ron Portman (R-OH) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). The bipartisan bill (read it here) requires:
all reports to Congress that are required by law to be published online in a central repository, and Congress to keep a list of all of its reporting requirements and check whether agencies have submitted reports on time.
ACMRA is important because it improves the legislative ecosystem for high quality information. In short, it empowers Congressional staff to do their jobs and the public to hold the government accountable.
[Note: We wrote this analysis based on the text of the draft bill of December 1, 2017. Just before posting we received a new draft bill dated December 11, 2017. A quick comparison shows few significant changes between the two bills, but there are some improvements (we note one below.) We encourage you to suggest improvements directly to the CHA (see “Action” at the end of this post.]
We now have a draft bill (dated 12/11/2017) proposing revisions to Title 44 of the U.S. Code. It is, indeed, a draft with inconsistencies and some awkward and confusing language. Also, the marked up by the Committee on House Administration that was supposed to happen on Wednesday December 13, 2017 has now been postponed until some time in January, 2018. Nevertheless, the broad outlines of the intentions of the bill are clear. We provide below a first look at this draft bill, focusing on broad policies rather than detailed specifics.
A complete rewrite
The bill does not tweak the existing law, but throws it out and rewrites significant portions of the law. Specifically, it throws out chapters 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 17, and 19 that define the Depository Library Program along with Congressional/Executive/Judicial printing and binding, the Joint Committee on Printing, the Government Publishing Office, and the sales program, and inserts in its place 3 giant chapters defining the “Government Printing Office” (yes, it changes the name back to "printing office"), “Implementation of Authorities,” and “No-fee public access to government information” (which includes the FDLP and GPO’s "online repository"). It also evidently drops chapter 41 that defines access to federal electronic information and sets up FDsys/govinfo.gov.
The bill instantiates into law GPO’s worst policies. It does improve provisions for long-term free access and digital preservation, but it does so inadequately and with explicit loopholes that make those provisions nearly worthless. The bill contains provisions that would be very useful if they were enforceable, but it removes the already almost non-existent enforcement in the current law. In short, it is a bad bill with some nice language thrown in to make it sound better than it is. A spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down, as it were.
As we have suggested, there are four principles that, we believe, must be supported by any revision of Title 44.
Below we analyze the bill’s effect on those principles and the other weaknesses of the bill.
Our friend Stephen Schultze, a 3rd year Georgetown University law student (formerly associate director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University), argues in a new paper that the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system should be free. We concur!
Schultze, Stephen, The Price of Ignorance: The Constitutional Cost of Fees for Access to Electronic Public Court Records (December 4, 2017). Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 106, No. 4, 2018. Available at SSRN.
This paper argues that the federal judiciary has erected a fee structure that makes public records practically inaccessible for many members of the public and for essential democratic purposes. The per-page fee model inhibits constitutionally protected activities without promoting equally transcendent ends. Through this fee system, the judiciary collects fees at ever-increasing rates and uses much of the revenue for entirely other purposes — in an era in which the actual cost of storing and transmitting digital records asymptotically approaches zero. PACER should be free.