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Meet the Captain of Congressional Grammar, Punctuation and Style

Mike Abramson is the master of federal government printing style.

Anyone wondering about the proper use of “whereas” in a resolution, feeling confounded by the canons of capitalization in a committee report or pondering the punctuation of a bill should consult the Government Printing Office veteran.

Abramson serves as chairman of the GPO’s Style Board, a body of proofreading and printing specialists charged with writing and revising the agency’s Style Manual — the gospel for government document formatting. In that role, he’s responsible for manning the inbox.

“I get questions from virtually all over the country regarding GPO style, and printing in general, and I try to answer them as best I can, based on my knowledge and experience,” Abramson said on a recent weekday morning as he clicked through his email during an interview with CQ Roll Call on the seventh floor of the agency’s North Capitol Street headquarters.

He’s spent close to a quarter-century poring over congressional records, federal registers, bill text, committee reports and the transcripts of Capitol Hill happenings, ensuring that official manuscripts are error-free. During Abramson’s tenure, technology has morphed dramatically. Gone are the floppy disks and CD-ROMs of bygone eras. THOMAS is out, is in. Style has changed accordingly, but the fundamental commitment to an accurate historical record remains the same.

“It seems like whatever we do, we always seem to touch history,” Abramson said, recounting special assignments. He proofread the independent counsel’s report on the Iran-Contra affair, and he was also detailed to correct federal budget drafts from President Bill Clinton’s administration.

The soft-spoken Baltimore native got his start in the industry during the 1960s, when he enrolled in printing as a ninth-grade elective class. He enjoyed it, found he had a knack for the detail-oriented trade and continued his studies at a vocational technical high school. Upon graduation, he got his first job as a linotype operator for the Monotype Composition Company, setting up molds and casting letters in a process known as hot metal typesetting.

“While I was at Monotype, they changed from hot metal to what we call a cold-type system, which is a computerized type system,” Abramson said. That transition began in the early 1980s.

His public sector career started in 1989, when he was hired as a printer-proofreader for the GPO. Earning the job required a him to take a test on the style and grammar of GPO publications and the alphabet of symbols used in proofreader marks.

“I used to sit right back there in the same area,” Abramson said, gesturing over his shoulder to a group of cubicles colloquially referred to as the nucleus of the operation. He’s risen steadily through the ranks to become a foreperson.

On days when Congress is in session, messengers from Capitol Hill deliver manuscripts to the pre-press department throughout the evening. Stacks grow as the pages arrive in a random order, bits and pieces at a time, until the House and Senate have adjourned.

“We don’t count pages for the record,” Abramson said. “We count inches — how high it is. It can be many inches high, depending on what they’re doing on the Hill at the time.”

He chuckles when he thinks about filibusters.

When Congress works until 3 a.m., the Congressional Record may be delayed, but it’s guaranteed that if members are in session, the action on the floor will be documented and published. Abramson works through the government shutdowns, snowstorms and natural disasters that keep other federal employees at home.

During “Snowmageddon” in Febuary 2010, Abramson found his normal train from Baltimore canceled, so got in his car at 4:30 a.m. and carefully drove through 30 inches of snow to arrive in time for his 7 a.m. shift.

In August 2011, he and the other pre-press employees were briefly ordered to leave the building when a magnitude-5.8 earthquake rocked its foundation. They returned a short time later to get back to work.

“We know we support the president and Congress,” Abramson said.

When he’s not at work, Abramson is an avid tennis player. After 47 years in the printing industry, it might seem time to retire the red proofreading pen permanently in favor of his racquet, but he’s still consumed with getting the next version of the GPO Style Manual just right.

“I keep track in my inbox, and also various manuals of changes that I want to suggest for the next edition,” he said, pulling a 4-inch-thick binder from a shelf above his desk. He caught some grief for a small error in the 2008 edition. When the Navy title “master chief” was accidently excluded, Abramson received a letter from a congressman and an email from a prominent Navy official.

For a man who’s built his career on precision, it was a bummer.

“It goes to show if you miss something, somebody somewhere’s going to be very upset.”

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