Mary Alice Baish
Assistant Washington Affairs Representative
Georgetown University Law Library
111 G Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20001
Telecommunications Reform and
Legislative Branch Appropriations--
What's the Link and Why Should We Worry?
The theme for this month's column, envisioned a while ago and already in draft form, was to be a somewhat comprehensive overview of House and Senate efforts of the 104th Congress to reform telecommunications. Since January there has been a strong sense among government officials, industry members, and public interest groups here in Washington that this is the year that the 1934 Communications Act will be rewritten.
Telecom hearings began in the Senate way back in February and two major bills, S. 652 and H.R. 1555, are now winding their way through the legislative process. With billions of dollars at stake, industry lobbying is intense. Activities of library and other public interest groups here in Washington related to these proposals have focused on the promotion of universal service and the protection of our First Amendment and privacy rights in the electronic environment. Since January, Congressional activity has been frenetic as Republicans scrambled to fulfill their "Contract with America" within the first hundred days. We are now seeing, though, an equally ambitious agenda during these second hundred days and telecom reform has emerged as one of the top priorities.
What concerns me very much today (and has caused me to divert from focusing this month solely on telecom issues) is the draft Legislative Branch Appropriations bill that was marked-up yesterday (June 8, 1995). The Republican Congressional leadership is turning the annual appropriations process into a downsizing frenzy, but one that is seemingly well-planned, focused and coordinated between members of both the House and the Senate. The Legislative Branch appropriations process began last February at a joint House/Senate Subcommittee hearing. We learned then that Congress intended to put its own house in order, in terms of downsizing and privatization, just as it would legislate a reduction in size and programs of Executive branch agencies. In fact, Republican leadership recently announced that the Departments of Commerce, Education and Energy are all slated for elimination.
The signals from these early hearings were also very clear that the Congressional leadership is becoming enamored with electronic information, particularly if this results in cost savings to the government. The THOMAS system at the Library of Congress, created at the request of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and inaugurated with much fanfare in early January, is the prime example of the growing interest in the electronic delivery of Congressional information.
Concurrently, the Government Printing Office (which has by law created the GPO ACCESS system which each day transmits data to THOMAS), was expressly targeted for reductions. H.R. 1024 was introduced last February by Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-WA) to drastically downsize and restructure the GPO. At yesterday's appropriations mark-up session, we learned that Congress intends to speed up this trend towards electronic dissemination. Alarmingly, the appropriations bill, if enacted with its significant cuts in the GPO budget, has the potential to destroy the Depository Library Program.
So now, just what is the link between these two pieces of legislation? Current telecommunications reform proposals will shape the future of the National Information Infrastructure, how information will be delivered and what it will cost. The Legislative Branch appropriations process may well determine the content, in terms of federal government information, of the NII. We are in jeopardy of losing the system of effective, comprehensive access and dissemination of government information at the federal level. If this system is undermined during the transition to a more electronic environment for federal information, we may also lose that access at the state level as well. For all of these reasons, the results of these two legislative proposals will be critical in defining the future of electronic government information.
S. 652, the Telecommunications Competition and Deregulation Act of 1995
Seeking bi-partisan support, the Senate Commerce Committee circulated draft bills by Sen. Larry Pressler (R-SD) and Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC) in early February. Many hearings were held, and on March 30, 1995 Sen. Pressler introduced this compromise bill. In simple terms, S. 652 would allow cable and telephone companies to enter each other's markets, and would further allow the Bells to enter the long-distance market after certain checklist provisions have been met. The premise is that if the telecommunications industries are deregulated, competition will open and the consumer will see services improve and prices drop. Key amendments which passed the Committee (S. Rpt. 104-23) and are this week being hotly debated on the Senate floor are:
* the Snowe-Rockefeller amendment which would provide affordable connections, "not higher than the incremental costs," to K-12 schools, libraries, and rural health care facilities. All telecommunications carriers would be required to contribute to the support of universal service. A joint Federal and State Board would be established to determine these rates. We support this amendment providing some degree of universal service to assure that libraries and schools receive affordable rates.
* the Exon amendment, introduced in early February as S. 314, the "Communications Decency Act," which was later incorporated into S. 652 as Title IV. The bill would criminalize authors of "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent" messages transmitted on networks. Provisions of the original Exon bill would have extended criminal liability to service providers as well. If enacted, the Exon amendment would egregiously prohibit our rights to freedom of speech and privacy in the electronic environment. AALL opposes the Exon amendment and supports its replacement with S. 714, a bill introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in April.
This legislation, the "Child Protection, User Empowerment, and Free Expression in Interactive Media Study," act, would be a well-timed alternate to the Exon amendment. Rather than controlling the content of information transmitted through networks as proposed in the Exon amendment, Leahy's bill would authorize the Department of Justice to study technological alternatives. If enacted as part of the telecom legislation, the Leahy bill would protect the public's First Amendment rights of free speech and privacy.
FY 1996 Legislative Branch Appropriations
Let's shift gears now and turn to the latest developments in the House appropriations process for the Government Printing Office. Members of Congress are clearly targeting themselves with reductions in costs for Congressional printing and binding. The House appropriations draft bill decreases copies of the daily Congressional Record which are distributed to members of Congress and it eliminates the copies mailed directly from GPO to constituents, mostly libraries and schools, throughout the country. It also decreases by half the number of print copies of hearings which are distributed to Congressional Committees.
None of these actions would effect the depository program. The primary purpose of these and other similar cutbacks in the Congressional Printing and Binding (CP&B) fund is no doubt to force members of Congress and their staffs to begin using the electronic version of Congressional documents, weaning them from reliance on the more costly paper products.
Libraries will, however, be affected by this reduction in the CP&B fund in that the Serial Set and the bound Congressional Record will be produced and distributed to depository libraries on CD-ROM only. Even regional depository libraries would no longer receive the printed Serial Set. It remains to be seen whether both titles will be available in paper through the GPO Sales Program.
The other and much more troublesome development is that this bill cuts by 50% the appropriations for GPO's Salaries and Expenses (S&E) which funds the Depository Library Program. This initiative came as unexpected and very staggering news. The bill requires agencies to reimburse GPO for all costs associated with the printing and distribution of paper products for depository libraries. Agencies, on the other hand, will not have to reimburse GPO for the production or dissemination of online or CD-ROM products. Intended by the Subcommittee as an incentive for Executive branch agencies to quickly move from a print to an electronic environment, it will have drastic consequences for the depository program.
Since we learned of these initiatives just yesterday (June 8, 1995), it's still too early to fully comprehend all the ramifications of this glaring change to the dissemination of federal government information. By slashing funding for the program by half and in effect by penalizing agencies who continue to disseminate information in print rather than electronically, it remains to be seen exactly what information agencies will indeed choose to publish. It seems to be somewhat of an unfunded mandate, both for Executive branch agencies and the GPO. No study or cost analysis has being undertaken to determine just what this drastic change will mean governmentwide.
As an appropriations bill, if passed it becomes effective on October 1, 1995, just four months from now. No oversight or enforcement provisions are known at this point. It is therefore very troublesome that no consideration is given as to how GPO will be able to enforce agency compliance. Title 44 which defines the essence of the Depository Library Program is clearly being amended by this appropriations bill.
Now, how these bills intersect and why we should be so concerned.
These two critically important initiatives are being considered by Congress on somewhat of a legislative fast track. On one hand, the future development of the National Information Infrastructure (NII) is clearly at stake as Congress moves to deregulate the telecommunications industries. We have been told time and again, by members of the administration and Congress, that the private sector will build the NII. Our key concerns here are twofold: will this infrastructure be affordable for our libraries?; and will the content of the networks be restricted in any way, abridging our rights of free speech and privacy? As this column goes to press, S. 652 is being intensely debated for the third day on the Senate floor. Hearings on the House bill, H.R. 1555, will begin within a few weeks.
The Legislative Branch appropriations process appears to be the mechanism by which the Congressional leadership is going to thrust the federal government into a full electronic environment, ready or not. The effects of these new proposals undermine the essence of the Depository Library Program. They do not provide for a smooth and thoughtful transition to an all-electronic world. They do not take into account what vital government information may be lost during this transition. Although the Depository Library Program is not on paper being eliminated, its future is clearly in serious jeopardy despite assurances of support for the program by members of the House Subcommittee.
Finally, to illustrate the legislative fast track for this appropriations process, the House draft bill was marked-up by the Subcommittee yesterday morning, June 8th. It goes to the full Appropriations Committee on June 15th and to the House floor on June 20th. This gives those of us here in Washington a very short time to gather information and determine our strategic response. It's yet very unclear whether the Senate has agreed to these drastic budget reductions for the Depository Library Program and how successful we may be in effecting changes to this legislation. Our efforts here in Washington during the next few weeks will involve meeting with members of Congress and their staffs, writing letters and making phone calls, and enlisting the vital support at the grassroots level from AALL members. Check here with us here next month for an update on both these pieces of legislation. Also, last spring AALL initiated two meetings here in Washington for twenty-five representatives from AALL, ALA, ARL and SLA. We have developed a framework for an enhanced Access and Dissemination Program for Federal Government Information which will be discussed in Pittsburgh at the Annual Meeting. More information about these well-timed efforts in next month's column.
View Supplement to this article.
1996, American Association of Law Libraries