Pols push to abolish agency charging for documents available for free online

Anyone who's used the Internet knows that if you want a government document or research report, it's probably available online -- often for free.

And that's caught the attention of a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers, who last week introduced a bill to abolish an "outdated" and little-known federal agency they warn -- though still making money by performing document searches and other services for a fee -- will soon become Internet-age obsolete.

"This agency has clearly outlived its usefulness," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said of the National Technical Information Service -- a component of the Department of Commerce. The agency was created in 1950 to collect and sell various reports to the public. But a recent government study found what might already have been obvious -- most of the recent reports were "readily available from other public sources."

In a press release announcing the bill, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said: "This is the 'let me Google that for you' office of the federal government."

Fittingly, the bill is called the "Let Me Google That For You Act."

For the time being, the agency as a whole is still making money. It spends roughly $65 million per year, but takes in more than that from fees and other sources. The Government Accountability Office reported recently that the NTIS is "financially self-sustaining" thanks to other revenue generated from services like web hosting and e-training.

But behind those numbers is a troubling trend.

Lately, the division of that agency that sells records to the public -- which was the primary reason the NTIS was created in the first place -- has been losing money.

The Government Accountability Office study found the agency lost, on average, about $1.3 million a year on those reports and other products over the last 11 years.

The same report questioned whether the agency's model can remain "viable" going forward.

The Department of Commerce has not yet responded to a request for comment on the bill.

But the bill sponsors argue it's time for the NTIS to go away. The new "Let Me Google That For You Act" proposes that any services deemed "critical" simply be transferred to another office within the Department of Commerce.

"Only the Federal Government would attempt to sell what you can get for free, make no money, then subsidize the failure," Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., said in a statement. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, is also co-sponsoring the bill.

Coburn separately fired off a letter to NTIS Director Bruce Borzino noting that, ironically, his own annual round-up of wasteful federal spending, called the "Wastebook," is among the reports being offered by the NTIS. Recent copies of the "Wastebook" are available for $48, though Coburn's own website offers those same reports - for free.

Coburn asked that, for now, the NTIS at least stop charging people for his reports.

The GAO report found that 74 percent of reports added to the NTIS repository between 1990 and 2011 were readily available elsewhere. Often, according to the GAO, they were available from the "issuing organization's website," from USA.gov, or from a simple web search. Mostly, the reports available elsewhere were being offered for free.