A handful of lawmakers are on a crusade to abolish a tiny, little-known agency within the Commerce Department, that’s primary purpose is to sell federal documents like Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports and Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections that are almost all available online for free.
The National Technical Information Service (NTIS) was created in 1950—40 years before the Internet, to catalog and store scientific, academic and government documents. But critics argue that the agency’s purpose is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the age of the Internet where massive search engines like Google are at nearly everyone’s fingertips. In 2012, more than 75 percent of the documents NTIS sold could be accessed online for free, according to the GAO.
This isn’t sitting right with the top federal agency responsible for weeding out wasteful government spending. This week, GAO’s Comptroller General Gene Dodaro specifically requested that NTIS stop selling its reports, which are freely available on the watchdog’s website.
“I am writing to request that NTIS discontinues the sale of electronic copies of GAO Products,” Dodaro wrote in the letter to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, obtained by The Fiscal Times. “We reported that most of the products added to NTIS’s collection and made available for sale were readily available from other public websites and nearly all of them could be obtained for free.
Dodaro urged members of Congress to “consider whether the fee-based model under which NTIS operates for disseminating technical information should be continued.”
Lawmakers like Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) have been leading the charge to do away with NTIS entirely. They sponsored a bill last year that would spell the end of the agency called the “Let Me Google That for You” Act.
Coburn has been especially critical of the agency, as it even sells his own annual Wastebook report, which details what the senator believes to be the most egregious wasteful spending across the federal government. Earlier this year, Coburn sent a letter to the agency’s director Bruce Borzino, asking the agency to stop selling documents that are free online.
The agency’s fate will be the subject of a Financial and Contracting Oversight subcommittee hearing this afternoon, where lawmakers will examine the “appropriateness and viability” of NTIS.
The lawmakers will likely bring up a finding from the GAO earlier this year showing that NTIS had sold only 8 percent of its 2.5 million reports between 1995 and 2000. The auditors estimate that the office has cost the government an average $1.3 million over the last 11 years.
Coburn and McCaskill say their bill would save the government as much as $50 million by eliminating the agency.
But NTIS officials, for their part, say their agency is essential because they “promote American innovation and economic growth by collecting and disseminating scientific, technical information to the public and industry.”
Borzino can expect a grilling at today’s hearing—as lawmakers will surely question why his agency is selling things that are free on the Internet…stay tuned.
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