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One of Government Publishing Office’s most important customers might soon be in charge

Hugh Halpern has confirmation hearing to be GPO director

Hugh Halpern, nominee to serve as director of the Government Publishing Office, testified at the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Hugh Halpern, nominee to serve as director of the Government Publishing Office, testified at the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Not every nominee shows up for a confirmation hearing ready to show off his own personal copy of the House Manual. Then again, not every nominee is Hugh Halpern.

Halpern, the longtime Republican staff director of the House Rules Committee and subsequently director of floor operations for Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, is President Donald Trump’s nominee to run the Government Publishing Office.

“I used this book four, five times a day when I was working in the speaker’s office. It’s basically handmade. So, the leather binding, the foil stamping, the thumb indexes, the tabs and the marbling are all done by hand,” Halpern said, highlighting the work of GPO artisans. “We have to maintain the ability to do that.”

Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt, who has known Halpern since his own time in House GOP leadership, led the sparsely attended confirmation hearing for the director of a legislative branch agency that has had plenty of challenges. The last Senate-confirmed public printer was Davita Vance-Cooks, who was confirmed during the Obama administration in 2012 and left in October 2017. Since then, a series of acting heads of the agency have served. 

The Missouri Republican cited reporting of the GPO inspector general on issues with workplace harassment, as well as questionable practices related to both promotions and procurement.

“This really is an agency that really is ready for somebody to settle in, look at all the problems, with a commitment to solve them,” Blunt said, saying he wanted to push Halpern’s nomination forward as soon as next week.

The chairman also asked Halpern about how he would work with organized labor, which represents much of the GPO workforce.

Halpern suggested a workforce evolution will be necessary as the digital evolution of GPO products continues.

“Given its current trajectory, the problem that you’re going to have is that the customers are going to go away, and if the customers go away, then you’re not going to have any jobs,” Halpern said. “What we need to do is sort of have the bargaining units work with management as we sort of plot this new course, and it’s probably going to require some adjustment between sort of the older plant operations and some of the newer digital and customer service operations, but I don’t necessarily see a huge reduction in headcount.”

Halpern is a quite unique nominee for the job because during his years working for the House Rules Committee, as well as for Ryan, he was among the GPO’s most important customers.

Since the House Rules Committee is the last stop before legislation reaches the House floor, the panel’s staff is often working with GPO under some of the highest pressure situations.

“Today, the talented women and men of GPO literally work around the clock to produce congressional documents, meeting tight deadlines with perfect copy day after day,” Halpern said in his opening statement. “However, during my time as a House staffer, I observed one immutable fact: It is really hard to work with GPO.”

“As a committee staffer, you generally have two choices to produce documents with GPO. One, you can either use their proprietary software that doesn’t always operate as you’d expect it to, or two, you can just ship everything to GPO and frankly, kind of hope for the best,” he said.

Halpern said he wants to get to a point where documents can be produced with commercially available software while maintaining quality standards. He also said committee reports are still designed the same as they were in the 19th century, which is obvious to anyone who has looked at any decades-old GPO style manual.

Halpern also warned of the possibility that public access to government data could be hampered if clients start producing more documents without going to the agency.

GPO exists under the congressional umbrella, but it produces materials for the entire federal government, including secure documents like U.S. passports.

“We need to reduce the friction between GPO and its customers,” Halpern said.

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