Why is the Bureau of National Affairs Washington's biggest media organization? Because for more than 70 years, it's covered the government's every move.
Ask most Americans which news organization is the most ubiquitous and influential in Washington, and they'll probably name The Washington Post or perhaps split the ticket with CNN. They'd be surprised to know that the news organization with the most reporters covering the daily machinations of the federal government is not the mighty Post, the hometown's dominant daily. Nor is it The New York Times, America's paper of record, which claims to gather all the news that's fit to print.
Washington's most omnipresent media organization is something called the Bureau of National Affairs. Unless you buy one of its products–which means you're most likely a lobbyist, health care executive, bureaucrat, human resource officer, labor lawyer, government affairs manager for a major corporation, or environmental compliance officer–you've probably never heard of BNA. But each day, this unsung company sends about 220 reporters into the halls of Congress and executive agencies, compared with about 60 each for the Post and Times. These BNA journalists, part of a worldwide staff of 1,657, fill some 200 high-priced publications with thousands of pages of "just the facts" copy, all chronicling, in great detail, what federal, state, and international bureaucracies are up to.
"No sir, we are not a part of the federal government," is the standard BNA response to the inevitable question. The company is, rather, a facts funnel for government information on policies that affect business. Its writers know, as rookie reporter John Stewart was told 60 years ago, that "nobody is going to read what you write because he wants to. He's reading it because he has to. All he wants is facts." (The advice worked well for Stewart, who served as president and CEO from 1964-79 before moving up to chairman of the board until he retired in 1993.)
With a few exceptions–education policy, welfare issues that don't relate to labor or taxes, and foreign policy that isn't trade-related–if policy is being made, BNA is telling its subscribers about it. "They are a journal of record for the regulatory apparatus," says C. Boyden Gray, who served as counsel to regulatory task forces in the Reagan and Bush administrations. (Gray is a trustee of the Reason Foundation, REASON's parent organization.) He reads BNA's Daily Environment Report every day ($2,998 a year for print, around $2,000 for Web or e-mail delivery). "The business pages used to cover this more 20 years ago," says Gray. "Then it got to be too much, so they basically don't cover it at all any more."
As Gray suggests, the regulatory state's growth has been good for BNA. In the company's history and publications, we can see not only the patterns of that expansion but a disturbing fact about ubiquitous regulation: Simply keeping up with what the law requires has become so burdensome that tracking government actions can employ hundreds of reporters updating thousands of regulatory specialists. BNA's success, while an impressive business story, suggests the costs of regulation, most of which are never measured. The company's sales, only the tip of this iceberg, were $269 million last year.
The BNA story also suggests a rarely acknowledged interest group calculus: All those reporters and readers have become, sometimes despite their best intentions, implicit supporters of the regulatory state. "Well," chuckles Michael Maibach, Intel's Washington-based vice president for government affairs, "I think everyone thinks government could do a little bit less, but it's part of our job to keep track of what the government is doing, and you know, we're as happy as we can be. We happen to like these jobs." All that brainpower–of BNA's writers and editors, and of its subscribers–is also a regulatory cost, diverted from more productive pursuits.
BNA began in 1929 with The United States Daily, which founder David Lawrence envisioned as a national paper of record, publishing the texts of laws, regulations, and court decisions. The idea failed. Subscriptions peaked at only 100,000, too few to support a conventional publication. A few years later on a train trip to New York, however, New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs offered Lawrence some valuable advice: There just aren't enough people who need daily information with that level of detail to support an advertising base, Ochs told Lawrence, who by then knew his publication was doomed. But, continued Ochs, the people who do need that information need it badly, and will be willing to pay enough to support advertisement-free publications.
That became the BNA model: expensive, ad-free publications focusing long and deep on public policy issues that affect business. (Lawrence converted The United States Daily into a weekly that later became U.S. News and World Report.) The newly reconstituted BNA's first two publications were a quarterly, U.S. Patents, Trademark & Copyright Reports, which published the text of patents and court decisions, and U.S. Law Week, which focused on federal and state court decisions. The company's raw material has remained largely government-supplied ever since.
"We grew with the government," says Mike Cavanagh, executive editor of BNA's Business Information Division. "We have expanded whenever a new body of regulation has been developed."
Not surprisingly, the New Deal was good for BNA's business. In 1937, the company got a major boost when President Roosevelt called for a national investigation of the practices of American business. "Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing," Roosevelt declared. "This concentration is seriously impairing the economic effectiveness of private enterprise."
To investigate, Congress established the Temporary National Economic Committee, composed of six members of Congress and six representatives of the executive branch. Lawrence knew that Roosevelt was putting American business on trial–which meant that business executives would need immediate, detailed information on the committee hearings. He offered the committee a deal: BNA would provide printed and bound daily transcripts to the committee for free. It would sell the same transcripts to other interested parties, delivered overnight, for $25 a week. BNA soon had 2,000 subscribers. The six-month investigation is documented in 13 volumes that sit today in the company's archives.
Such cooperation has served both the federal government and BNA well. In 1941, BNA became the government's visible hand, publishing its Daily Report on Price and Production Controls, Manpower Report, and War Labor Report. BNA was the only private publisher to receive an unlimited allocation of paper during the war, and it became the largest private user of air service.
After World War II, Lawrence sold the company to its most senior editors, who cut all of BNA's employees in on the deal, creating a wholly employee-owned corporation in 1947. Back then, BNA had 279 full-time employees, the Federal Register had 8,902 pages, and the Code of Federal Regulations had 22,285 pages. Since then, each has increased more than five-fold.
One Word: Ergonomics
Today, BNA publishes eight daily newsletters on such subjects as taxes, environmental regulations, and labor law. It also puts out a pile of weekly and bi-weekly reports, books, and CD-ROMs. On health care alone, BNA publishes eight titles, including Managed Care Reporter, Health Care Policy Report, and Medicare Report. BNA's scope is not limited to Washington. It has correspondents in 40 countries and all 50 states who report on regulation outside the Beltway. And its human resource publications include "best practices" reporting which may have little to do with government.
Still, the company's focus remains centered on Washington. "We try to provide a complete view of what is going on in Washington," says Toby McIntosh, who edits BNA's Daily Report for Executives, a summary publication that pulls material from BNA's vast arsenal of reports. DER costs $6,200 year and runs around 105 pages daily.
The day I interviewed McIntosh, The Washington Post featured a front-page story on OSHA's proposed ergonomics standards. "I was smiling when I read the paper this morning," says McIntosh, "because we ran a draft of that [rule] two weeks ago." This hardly matters to the average Post reader, who pays 25 cents a day and for whom the minutia of ergonomics is sleep-inducing. But for an association head or business lobbyist, two weeks' notice is worth the extra money. When the mainstream reporters call for comment, BNA's exclusive means that its readers have the facts nailed down and a well-crafted response. And BNA, of course, was covering ergonomics long before these draft rules. In 1998 the DER reported on ergonomics 80 times, while Monica got a mere 16 mentions.
Read BNA coverage of an issue side by side with the Post or theTimes, and it becomes clear that the outlets differ on level of detail and context.
While other publications return to an issue only when major movements occur, BNA covers even the tiniest baby steps. This has two implications: BNA has less need to put events in context, since it can assume readers understand the issue. And it shies away from drawing conclusions and making predictions, letting readers fill in the implications of the news themselves.
This latter distinction was displayed in late January when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a complex ruling in a fight among the Federal Communications Commission, long distance carriers, and local phone companies, based on the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The New York Times led its story claiming the FCC lost, which "could delay efforts to open the $100 billion local telephone business to competition." The Washington Post's lead concluded the exact opposite, declaring that the decision "could hasten the pace of competition in one of the last bastions of monopoly in telecommunications, the $100-billion-a-year business of local phone service." BNA, perhaps anticipating its conflicted competition, reported, "The high court's ruling is cheered by both sides." Says a proud McIntosh: "We have less of a tendency to try to push a one-perspective lead. We are more willing to deal with the ambiguity of a story."
That's what BNA customers are buying. Says the manager of public policy for a major bank, who purchases a suite of BNA publications on the Web: "I think what the BNA depicts quite clearly is the complexity of the relationship between business and government and the extent of government involvement in markets. Corporate managers as a result need a resource like BNA to keep track of the multitude of touch points between business and government that change daily." He notes that "BNA [publications have] has broader and more detailed coverage than The Washington Post. They are accurate and unbiased."
BNA publications reproduce their sources' arguments without analysis or disputation, something Washington insiders like. As a result, these publications provide a neutral forum for the various players–executive branch bureaucrats, congressional staffers, industry representatives, think tank experts, etc.–to signal one another. "I am always excited to get quoted or cited in BNA's International Trade Reporter because I know our target audience, the most important policy makers, read it," says Brink Lindsey, the Cato Institute's director of trade policy studies.
"It's a way for people in Washington to communicate with each other," says Paul F. Albergo, managing editor of BNA's Health Care Policy and Health Care Daily. His audience, he says, echoing Lindsey's description, "are the most important people in Washington."
Uncle Sam's Biographer
Government regulation, like any system, is constantly evolving. It reacts to supply, demand, external shocks, and the institutional interplay of the separate branches and different levels of government. BNA publications evolve in rapid response. Albergo's Health Care Policy Report, for instance, was launched three months after Clinton took office, when health care emerged as a national issue. Labor Relations Reporter first appeared on Labor Day 1937, a few months after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Wagner Act. Environment Reporter was launched less than two weeks after the first Earth Day. Occupational Safety and Health Reporter debuted one week after the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act became effective.
A look at BNA's past publications gives one an idea of just what the government's been up to. The federal government's expansion is generally broken down into two periods. The first included economic regulations, which concentrated on regulating particular industries and labor relations to counteract a perceived abundance of "private power." Although some existed earlier, these economic regulations flourished in the New Deal, with such laws as the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Agricultural Adjustment Act.
The Great Society's social regulation marked the second push. Starting in the 1960s, the government sought to ensure general fairness and safety for each of its citizens, not just a balance of power between the working man and industry. Government would go to bat for minorities and women, under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. New regulatory agencies would also provide us all with a clean environment and ensure safe workplaces and consumer products.
As we approach the next century, journalist Jonathan Rauch argues we have entered yet another phase of regulation–that of "microgovernment." Empowered by statutes and expansive court rulings, microgovernment regulates through torts and personal rights litigation, in which individuals sue on their own behalf instead of being represented by unions or government agencies. Microgovernment expands without weighing social costs and benefits, because it is driven not by agency or group actions but by individuals with no particular interest in the broader ramifications of their actions.
The BNA library, which sits on the second floor of the company's seven-story building, documents these periods. BNA cut its teeth on the New Deal's second-wave labor legislation, which is reflected in the shelves of literature on labor law and relations. There's a 10-part series called Labor Relations and Social Problems, apparently designed for college courses, which covers details of labor law, a dense patchwork of legislation that first granted unions great powers of coercion and then later tried to rein them in.
Staring straight ahead, one sees The Taft-Hartley Act–After One Year, a followup to its widely successful neighbor, The New Labor Law: What the Labor-Management Relations Act, 1947, Means to Business-men, Workers, Unions, and Their Advisors. BNA had this publication available the day Congress voted to override Truman's veto. BNA editors presented Sen. Robert Taft with a copy upon passage, and the book went on to sell 20,000 copies, an extraordinary success for that type of publication in that era.
Down the aisle, BNA's shelves reflect the social legislation of the 1960s and '70s. One is confronted by the blue spine of The Civil Rights Act of 1964: Text, Analysis, Legislative History: Operations Manual on Fair Employment Practices, Public Accommodations, Federal Assistance. This book sold more than 2,000 copies in the first three weeks. Bound in red is The Job Safety and Health Act of 1970: Text, Analysis, Legislative History: Operations Manual. And you can't miss the 1,400-plus pages of BNA's 1976 Employment Discrimination Law.
The environmental regulation of the 1970s was particularly good to BNA, which created a new division to cover the subject. U.S. Environmental Laws is an orange and black brick of a book. The adjacent shelf supports a blue-bound series with such titles as Environmental Criminal Liabilities, Environmental Law Handbook, Environmental Tax Handbook: Strategies for Compliance, and Endangered and Other Protected Species: Federal Laws and Regulations.
From here, we move into microgovernment, focusing on the 1992 book, Sexual Harassment in Employment Law. Writing in the wake of the Hill-Thomas hearings, the authors explain, "The idea that harassment could be punished through the legal system is of relatively recent origin." They note that "every woman–every woman–who has spent substantial time in the work force in the last two decades can tell at least one story about being the object of sexual harassment." This, of course, means that every employer–every employer–who has ever hired a woman is potentially liable and needs to keep apace of the ever-changing law. Continuing in the field of employment law, the shelves offer advice on Alcohol and Drugs: Issues in the Workplace and the BNA Plus Info Pack [on the] Family and Medical Leave Act.
A Core Sample
If Congress has passed an environmental, employment, or tax law, or an executive branch bureaucracy has issued a regulation in one of these areas, chances are some expert has analyzed it for BNA. Ditto for court decisions. A real-time way to get a handle on the myriad tasks you're paying your government to perform is to slice a cross-section of BNA publications for any two-week period.
Subscribers to BNA's Worker's Compensation Report learned on December 7, for instance, that after 10 years of careful study, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had issued a rule requiring employers with forklifts to develop, or hire consultants to develop, formal training programs for forklift operators, with "refresher training" every three years. Forklifts, despite being easy to operate, cause 94,000 injuries each year, according to OSHA, and 100 deaths. For a mere $16.9 million of privately incurred costs, OSHA expects this particular regulation to prevent 9,500 injuries and 11 deaths, for a total savings to industry of $135 million. In keeping with BNA's scrupulous "just the facts" approach, the report provides no clue to how this figure was calculated or whether it is believable.
Or consider this amusing tidbit on the front of the December 17 Health Care Fraud Report: "Under the proposal, to be included in the president's fiscal 1999 budget, Medicare payments for prescription drugs would be reduced to the actual amount that the drugs cost." Imagine–paying only what something "costs." According to the article, the Department of Health and Human Services estimates that in 1996 alone the government spent $446 million more than the wholesale price offered to private vendors for 22 drugs.
There are ample signs of microgovernment in the week's reports. Those who paid $816 last year for BNA's Human Resources Report were among the first to know that, as reported in the December 7 issue, "Using Subjective Factors [in promotion] Could Be Pretext for Bias." If you thought such soft skills as personality, attitude, and verbal communication were as important as fancy degrees for certain jobs, you're guilty of anachronistic thinking. The summary on the front page says it all: "Hispanic applicant can proceed with her argument that Utah state Tax Commission's interviews process, which assessed candidates for promotion on such criteria as `assertiveness' and `attitude,' contained subjective standards that could be pretexts for discrimination, court rules."
Bouncing over a column, subscribers no doubt got a chuckle out of this nugget, which ran under the boldfaced heading "Sexual Harassment": "Restaurant should have taken steps to prevent male working with history of harassing female co-workers from luring hostess into closet and attacking her, Minnesota appeals court rules."
To the untrained eye, this is all quite funny. But to business people, constant updates on the state of America's litigation explosion are serious stuff. Laws and regulations are equally important–and time-sensitive. As Ochs predicted, when people's livelihoods depend on current information, they are willing to pay handsomely to receive it. That is why the "most important" people in Washington read publications most people will never know exist. Government's growth has made it too expensive and too complicated for ordinary journalists and ordinary citizens to keep track of what it does. The news that once filled the business pages has, as Gray suggested, become the stuff of specialists.
For 70 years, BNA has stuck to its mission: "to report, interpret and explain the increasingly complicated workings of the federal government and their far-reaching impact on the economic life of the nation." And for 70 years, those complications have indeed increased. Through laws, regulations, and court decisions, our democracy has, as Alexis de Tocqueville predicted in the early 19th century, covered "the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules." Their impact includes the growth of BNA itself and of the specialists it serves.
Expanding government has been good to BNA, acknowledges Mike Cavanagh of the Business Information Division. "It works for us," he says, "because our job is to say what they're doing. And if they shut up tomorrow, we'd have many fewer subscribers."
Michael W. Lynch (email@example.com) is REASON' Washington editor.