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Agency selling free information could be axed

Apr. 3, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By GREGORY KORTE   |   Comments
Sen. Tom Coburn Holds News Conference On Wasteful
Sen. Tom Coburn would like to abolish the National Technical Information Service. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

If you want access to a federal government technical manual — say, DWI Detection and Standardized Field Sobriety Testing — you could go to an obscure federal agency and order it for $200. For another $130, the agency will “certify” your copy and give you rush shipping.

Or you could, you know, Google it. For free.

That business model — selling government documents that are already online for free — costs the National Technical Information Service an average of $1.3 million a year, according to the Government Accountability Office. The GAO estimates that 74 percent of NTIS documents are already free online. And an earlier review found that 92 percent of the 2.5 million documents in its catalog had failed to sell a single copy.

So Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., wants to close the agency down.

The Let Me Google That For You Act of 2014 — yes, that’s the actual name of the bill — would abolish the 64-year-old NTIS. Any necessary functions would be transferred to the National Archives or other agencies. Sponsors include members of both parties: Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., and Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas.

The NTIS even sells copies of Coburn’s annual Wastebook, which documents examples of government waste and are available for free on Coburn’s website, for $36. “Ironically, the latest edition of Wastebook — which lists NTIS as one of the most wasteful government offices — is not available for sale yet by NTIS,” Coburn said. He’s asked NTIS to stop offering them for sale.

Abolishing the NTIS is not an entirely new idea. In 1999, then Secretary of Commerce William Daley proposed shutting down the agency by 2000. It never happened.

Instead, President Obama’s proposed 2015 budget recommends growing the agency from $67 million to $86 million — presumably through increased user fees.

NTIS spokesman Steve Needle did not return a call seeking comment.

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