The Federal Register Turns 70

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Next Tuesday, the Federal Register celebrates its 70th year as the country's chronicle of regulatory minutia. True to the publication's reputation as an encyclopedia for policy nerds, the party being thrown by the National Archives and Records Administration and the Government Printing Office starts at 9 a.m. -- scheduled, no doubt, to let federal bureaucrats scurry back to their desks to write more rules.

The celebration marks the evolution of a publication that began as a two-column, 16-page gazette of the burgeoning federal bureaucracy created by the New Deal. It has progressed from a diary of completed rulemakings -- usually about five items a day at first -- to an Internet-based reference that allowed some 208 million documents to be downloaded in 2004.

On March 14, 1936, when the first issue came off the presses, the Federal Register contained items about regulating the handling of milk in the St. Louis area, trade practice rules the Federal Trade Commission issued for button manufacturers, and an excise tax on employers under the Social Security Act.

The readers were few. The cost for a subscription was $10 annually. And some officials worried there would not be enough material to publish daily. Indeed, it took only 1,500 pages to fill the first six months of the publication, compared with the 75,675 pages printed in 2004.

Subscriptions to the print version now cost $749. Circulation plummeted to 2,500 from 20,000 after the register became available for free online in 1994.

Though he had doubts about establishing the register, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote the lead-off rule -- really an executive order -- to enlarge the Cape Romain Migratory Bird Refuge in South Carolina. Roosevelt appointed the first director, retired Army Maj. Bernard R. Kennedy, at a salary "not to exceed" $5,000 a year.

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