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Print or online? New GPO director Hugh Halpern is a publishing ‘agnostic’

After decades as a Hill staffer, he’s presiding over information in the digital age — but he can still geek out over print

Government Publishing Office Director Hugh Halpern looks over copies of the Congressional Record as he gives a tour of the GPO on Jan. 22. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Government Publishing Office Director Hugh Halpern looks over copies of the Congressional Record as he gives a tour of the GPO on Jan. 22. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

After three decades of trying to blend into the woodwork, Hugh Halpern comes to the office and sees his own face on the wall. His picture is hanging in the lobby.

The new director of the Government Publishing Office spent 30 years as a congressional aide, and pushing down his “staffer instincts” has so far been one of the hardest parts of the job.

“This office is huge,” he said in an interview last week in the spacious director’s suite at the GPO’s facility on North Capitol Street. “Getting used to having all of this real estate all to myself it’s just — it’s weird.”

Halpern rose to director of floor operations under Speaker Paul D. Ryan, working his way up through a variety of staff positions, including at the Energy and Commerce and Financial Services panels. But he’s perhaps best known for his tenure as staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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In that role, he saw his share of late-night deadlines, made worse whenever appropriations legislation or other documents wouldn’t print, for one reason or another, through the system used by the GPO to convert them for publication.

“One of the things GPO needs to do is meet our customers where they are,” he told CQ Roll Call.

It wasn’t so long ago that GPO stood for “Government Printing Office,” but Congress changed the name in 2014, replacing one “p”-word with another. “Printing” was out, and “publishing” was in. The swap was supposed to reflect the agency’s commitment to digital offerings, but that transition hasn’t been an easy one.

Simply put, the agency handles publishing for the federal government, from the Congressional Record to the Federal Register and beyond — and the beyond has gotten bigger in the digital age.

“You’re looking at the articles of impeachment on your phone, on your computer screen, and maybe you’re looking at it in print,” Halpern said. “We need to be agnostic as to the media that we’re producing and really focus on delivering that content.”

That’s not to say print is dead at the GPO — if anything, geeking out is encouraged. Halpern and members of the professional staff were eager to show off a new four-color, high-speed inkjet printer that could easily switch between different documents, along with other shiny new hardware.

“We’re kind of at an inflection point,” Halpern said.“Can a committee report look different in 2020 or 2021 than it did in 1861? If you look at them today, they don’t.”

The influx of new technology was part of the appeal of the director’s job.

“I had not been quiet about my desire to see GPO modernize, and for the House and Senate to modernize their processes. The concern I had as an institutionalist is that the harder it is for Congress to produce these documents, at some point they’re just going to stop doing it,” Halpern said. “I, frankly, started to see it on committee reports, and I’m a big believer in the importance of committee reports.”

Committee reports have a lasting record quality, unlike white papers and press releases.

“There’s a copy that goes into a mountain someplace,” Halpern said.

After leaving Capitol Hill at the end of the Ryan speakership, Halpern weighed his options. Then people from both chambers approached him about the GPO opening, which was in flux amid concerns about instability and reports of mismanagement in the agency’s upper ranks. President Donald Trump had already nominated, and withdrawn, another candidate.

The last Senate-confirmed public printer was Davita Vance-Cooks, who left in October 2017. Since then, a series of acting heads of the agency have served. Halpern was nominated in October and confirmed in December.

“The natural path would be to go join a law firm or go join a lobbying firm and run around town asking my friends for favors, and that never actually appealed to me,” Halpern said.

The idea of “building a team, leading that team toward an objective,” was what ultimately sold him on the job. “At the Rules Committee, it was highly transactional and we had a new mission every single day,” he said. “Sometimes it was really ugly how we got there, but we always hit our marks.”

Now Halpern leads an organization that employs everyone from technology professionals to manufacturing shop workers to artisans and craftsmen who produce hand-marbled books, using methods from centuries ago.

“There aren’t a lot of other towns where you’re going to go from … a reasonably accomplished career doing one thing, and then they’re going to say, ‘Oh, now you’re CEO of a $900 million-a-year operation with 1,700 employees,’” Halpern said. “But the challenge of it fascinated me.”

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