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'Let Me Google That for You'—Now a Congressional Bill

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is one of the sponsors of the bill.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is one of the sponsors of the bill. // J. Scott Applewhite/AP

A little-known branch of the Commerce Department faces elimination, thanks to advances in technology and a snarkily named bill from Sens. Tom Coburn and Claire McCaskill.

The National Technical Information Service compiles federal reports, serving as a clearinghouse for the government's scientific, technical, and business documents. The NTIS then sells copies of the documents to other agencies and the public upon request. It's done so since 1950.

But Coburn and McCaskill say it's hard to justify 150 employees and $66 million in taxpayer dollars when almost all of those documents are now available online for free.

Enter the Let Me Google That for You Act. 

"Our goal is to eliminate you as an agency," the famously grumpy Coburn told NTIS Director Bruce Borzino at a Wednesday hearing. Pulling no punches, Coburn suggested that any NTIS documents not already available to the public be put "in a small closet in the Department of Commerce."

Borzino countered that his agency still serves an important purpose. "As the amount of data generated by the federal government grows, so does the challenge of ensuring its continued access and permanent availability," he testified. "This is a function unique to NTIS."

He noted instances in which NTIS had helped other agencies stockpile information to help with specific projects, and he emphasized its role in electronically storing documents some agencies are unable to host on their own websites. He also noted the NTIS expects to bring in $88 million in revenue from other government agencies this year.

To Coburn and McCaskill, though, that's more wasted money. In addition to the costs of staffing NTIS, taxpayers then get charged again when other agencies pay for its information. And that's not the only redundancy the senators see.

"We can't find any IT services you offer that [the General Services Administration] doesn't offer," McCaskill said. "You're more expensive than GSA."

"No, we're not," said Borzino.

"Yes," McCaskill replied, "you are."

She continued: "This is not personal. This is about duplication. This is about charging taxpayers for something that they can get for free."

Borzino maintained that his agency still has value. "We're trying to provide a service within our capabilities," he said. "We're doing a good job."

Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office has asked NTIS to stop selling its reports, as that agency posts them on its own site for free.

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