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Federal Register Celebrates 70 Years

When the first Federal Register rolled off the presses 70 years ago, it dealt with trade practices for buttons and ivory, Social Security excise taxes and other minute aspects of the inner workings of government.

Little has changed.

On Tuesday, its anniversary edition concerned itself with pine shoot beetles and pollock fishing, and birthday cake was served at the government building where it is printed daily.

The Federal Register remains the chronicler of all federal rules and regulations — the mundane as well as the momentous — and the place people to go to find out what Washington is doing for or to them.

Nothing has stopped the presses since that first issue appeared on March 14, 1936, said Bruce James, head of the Government Printing Office, which produces the Register with the National Archives.

"Not war, not snow, nothing," he said.

The first issue was 16 pages; Tuesday's 70th anniversary edition came in at 256.

A total of 2,620 pages were published the first year; in 2004, the total page count was 75,675. The largest single document ever published in the Federal Register was the 6,653-page antitrust settlement between the Justice Department and Microsoft Corp. on May, 3, 2002.

Congress passed legislation in 1935 creating the Federal Register after realizing there was "no real place to capture the work of what the agencies were doing," James said.

The publication is available for free at some 1,300 public and research libraries, or by mail subscriptions that started at $10 a year and now cost $929 annually.

Free Internet access to the Register in the 1990s brought the ins and outs of government's often mind-numbing rule-making process to even more of the masses.

As a result, the ranks of paid subscribers fell from 35,000 to fewer than 2,000 today, James said. More than 100 million Register documents are viewed annually over the Internet at no cost.

Agencies submit proposed rules and regulations for publication in the Register. After time for public comment, final rules that carry the force of law may be published.

The Federal Register, which is published every federal workday, also includes presidential proclamations and executive orders, and legal notices from the agencies.

It all began with that 16-page issue that included rules for the new Social Security system and trade practices for buttons on clothes and ivory.

Tuesday's issue included final and proposed rules from the Agriculture Department to prevent the spread of pine shoot beetles in six states, and from the Commerce Department to impose a temporary ban on pollock fishing in the Gulf of Alaska.