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Printing the Budget Is Still a Big Paper Chase

When Sam Dews began working at the Government Printing Office 37 years ago, it took him and his co-workers three weeks to bind the president’s budget, one sheet at a time.

The same job now takes three days. But much of the basics of printing the 2,450-page budget remain surprisingly old-school, with workers hand-feeding pages into collating machines and stacking the finished product on dollies.

GPO officials will deliver hundreds of copies of the budget to Members of Congress today, jump-starting months of hearings, negotiations and number-crunching. It will also mark the end of a week of round-the-clock work for the 300 employees who proof, print and distribute tens of millions of number-riddled pages.

Dews, 70, now oversees the book-binding process, watching as the pages make their way along a winding conveyor belt and through a series of whirring machines that stack, assemble and glue them together. He helps bind countless government documents throughout the year, but he is especially proud of the budget — not once, he said, has it gone out late.

“It’s very interesting, and it’s an honor and a privilege to be part of it,— Dews said last week amid the noisy machines on the printing press floor. “You couldn’t ask for more.—

The fiscal 2011 budget totals four volumes, the largest being the 1,424-page Budget Appendix. Although the GPO outsources the production of the smallest volume — the 186-page, color Budget of the U.S. Government — it prints and binds the remaining three sections just a few blocks from the Capitol, in its building on North Capitol Street.

This year, the agency will print more than 7,500 copies of each volume and distribute them to about 3,000 federal agencies. The White House will get a copy first, on Sunday night. Then workers will load pallets of books onto trucks that deliver the blue-covered tomes to officials throughout the week.

But all the information within the book will also be available online today at 10 a.m. — for free. As more people have turned to the electronic version over the past decade, the GPO has slowly decreased the number of copies it prints by about 3,000. But Public Printer Robert Tapella said he doesn’t expect the number to drop much further. Staffers and federal employees like having such a large, wonky book displayed on their desk, he said.

“It’s a status symbol,— he said. “It always has been, and it always will be.—

Printing the book also reeks of tradition. Though the past decade has seen the agency move into the technological era — shifting employees from the printing press floor to computer screens — the creation of the budget is still a hands-on job.

Big spools of paper — each weighing about 1,500 pounds — are placed onto a dolly and then rolled along a track to the printing machines, which print 700 feet of paper every minute. Sets of 64-page sections are then organized into pallets and carried by forklifts to the binding press, where three or four workers manually load stacks of paper onto the assembly line.

Most of the machines that do the work resemble giant office supplies. The “trimmer— is essentially a big paper cutter, chopping off the uneven edges of every book. One machine shakes the pages so they stack evenly, before another glues their edges together.

But every stage also involves an employee for quality control. Before the pages are printed onto large aluminum plates, experts look at computer screens and printouts to triple-check everything from the spacing to the font. Later, each page is checked with a densitometer, a scanner-like device that measures the density of the color. And throughout the process, machines jam and alarms whistle, prompting workers to divert books and make quick fixes.

“Technology has displaced the manual labor involved,— Tapella said Friday, as he gave a tour of the printing floor, “but technology cannot displace our workers’ expertise.—

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