Sam Dews has worked on the main floor of the Government Printing Office for nearly 40 years, binding the budgets of presidents from Nixon through Obama. When he began, he never imagined a day when the budget would be available on the Internet, on a CD-ROM, and, this year, on a smartphone app.
Dews is a quiet and methodical worker who generally keeps his head down, monitoring the folding, covering, binding, and trimming of the 2,000-page books. But he’s made enough friends to know that his team is dwindling. When he first started in 1973, GPO had 8,000 employees. Today it employs 1,900.
(PICTURES: Printing the President's Budget)
The reason for the downsizing is simple: New technology makes the process more efficient and makes readers less dependent on a paper product. Dews remembers when machines folded pages one at a time. Now they can fold sets of 32 pages in a matter of seconds. The process that used to take the better part of a month now takes days.
GPO received the last volume of President Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 from the Office of Management and Budget on Feb. 4, and the last book hit the finished stack five days later. But Dews says that shortened timeline only adds to the excitement he feels this time of year.
“It’s still a pleasure, it’s still an honor,” Dews said. “There’s a sense that you’re doing something really important.”
Two years ago Dews and his colleagues worked through the historic “Snowmageddon,” sleeping in the GPO building while the rest of the federal government stayed home. But the digital age may one day make the hard work of the budget assembly-line workers obsolete.
“It’s almost as if the budget reflects the changes in consumer appetite,” said Davita Vance-Cooks, the acting public printer who heads GPO. She is the first African-American woman to hold the job.
Lines of congressional staffers, Washington reporters, and interested citizens used to wrap around the building on budget-release day, according to Vance-Cooks. On Monday, she’s expecting the line to stretch from the bookstore through the long hallway, with maybe a small group trailing on the sidewalk.
The budget isn’t the only print product the GPO has seen drop in demand. The daily printing of the Congressional Record has dropped from 20,000 to 3,000 copies, according to a GPO spokesman.
Vance-Cooks says that GPO has already adjusted to the digital age. They load their content to the Federal Digital System and share it with the Library of Congress website, www.thomas.gov. They have software developers working on new ways to share government resources with the public. And they produce the security codes embedded on U.S. passports, smart cards for mass-transit commuters, and even the badges that were worn by security staff at Super Bowl XLVI.
Chances are Dews and his colleagues on the printing-room floor won’t be transferred to the software and security development side of the building. The GPO had an apprentice program in the 1920s and ’30s to train young men and women to become printers. Graduates of the program were honored with a reception and dance accompanied by the GPO orchestra. But the technology that turned out the lights on printing’s golden age has not led to similar efforts in workplace training for today’s GPO employees.
If Dews feels the shift in technology from the printing room, his supervisor, Assistant Public Printer Jim Bradley, feels the stress and flux of Washington from his office. Bradley, who works directly with OMB to bring the budget over for printing, received last-minute word from the agency that the budget would be delayed one week this year. Bradley gave the directions to Dews and his colleagues without asking OMB for an explanation.
“We are here to serve,” Bradley said.
This article appears in the Feb. 13, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.