For every cargo that moves by water to or from the United States, there is a piece of paper in the four-ring notebooks of the Federal Maritime Commission listing the exact rate that a steamship line is charging for moving it.
Last year, the law required the filing of 800,000 of these "tariff pages." The commission has been working for several years to end this paper avalanche by computerizing it.
Meanwhile, the House committee that oversees this little agency, the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, sees a chance to do more than modernize. It sees a chance to raise more than $700 million over a five-year period to help balance the budget.
The bill, introduced by the committee's ranking Republican, Robert W. Davis of Michigan, calls for charging a fee to anyone seeking direct or indirect access to the new database. If a database company picked up the maritime tariffs and worked them into more usable form, for example, not only would the database company be charged $21 an hour, but so would its customers.
It is this double-dipping precedent that has alienated not only the shipping industry but also newspaper publishers, database vendors and the American Civil Liberties Union.
"For the federal government, it really is a precedent-setting effort to make a profit at the expense of the public right to know," said Jerry Berman, director of the ACLU's information technology project.
"It's the principle -- it's putting a copyright on government information," said Gary Bass, executive director of the public interest group OMB Watch.
Until now, the government frequently has charged for information -- but just enough to cover the cost of collecting the data and handing it out.
The maritime tariffs themselves are of interest mostly to steamship lines and those who move cargo. And the 35-cent-a-minute charge by itself is not out of line with what it costs to gain computer access to other government databases.
But the committee's profit-multiplying approach has put dozens of major organizations on red alert. Under that approach, if a company resold the maritime database, each of its subscribers also would be liable for a 35-cent-a-minute fee while logged on.
Some people fear that the same approach will be applied to other, more vital databases.
For example, the Environmental Protection Agency, under orders from Congress, recently set up a "toxic release" database. Like the maritime database, this one can be scanned by anyone with a computer and a modem, an electronic translating device for moving computer data through phone lines.
Chemical-related companies must report on all releases of toxic chemicals, planned or unplanned, and the EPA database makes all this information visible to the public.
If the Maritime Commission database fee plan becomes law, Mr. Bass said, "Congress says, 'Hey, this could work in other areas.' " The environmentalists' victory in gaining access to the database "could be diminished in one fell swoop."
An analyst at the Congressional Budget Office studied the proposed maritime database fee and said that it would raise $720 million or more over five years, the committee's goal for balancing the budget. Although that estimate is much disputed, it was enough for the committee, which cleared the bill in late June.
The bill has since gathered more than 200 co-sponsors. "That indicates great breadth and depth of support," said Mark Ruge, the committee's deputy staff director.
It also might indicate a desire to be re-elected. In October, as part of budget wrangling, the committee and Congress had settled on another plan to raise more than $700 million over five years: an annual user's fee ranging from $25 to $100 for all pleasure boats plying coastal or Great Lakes waters.
Faced with thousands of letters from angry boat owners, the committee is now trying to repeal the boat fee and replace it with the database fee.
Staff members of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee are just glad that the bill has left their desks.
"We feel like we've done what we had to do," Mr. Ruge said. "Needless to say, it's hard to find an alternative revenue source. I mean, you always gore somebody's ox."
In this case, the largest ox belongs to media giant Knight-Ridder Inc., which owns Transax Data of Bridgewater, N.J. Transax's specialty is typing in the maritime data from its paper form and then selling the database for about $45 an hour. Although there are five other companies engaged in the same business, Knight-Ridder has well over half of the market.
The actual use of the Transax database, called Shiprate, is a routine part of daily life for steamship lines such as Maersk and Evergreen and for companies that regularly send or receive cargo by ship.
Maersk uses Transax's maritime data system to provide rates to customers who want to know how much a specific shipment will cost -- just as a travel agent would look up specific fares for a traveler. Maersk also uses the database internally to put the correct rate on a bill after the cargo has moved, said David L. Bindler, the giant steamship line's general manager for the mid-Atlantic region.
One of Maersk's customers is ITC Inc., a large mineral exporter based in Towson. Eric Bergland, operations manager at ITC, said that he uses Transax periodically to monitor rates and shipping rules.
"If Transax has to pay more, they'll push the cost back to me," he said. "If it goes up, we'll just have to evaluate how much we need it. "
Still, Maersk favors computerizing the information. The need for RTC computerization was clear long ago, Mr. Bindler said. "One of our tariffs is 19,000 pages. That's why it needs to be on computer. You don't want to have to lift 19,000 pages every time somebody calls."
Maersk's interests are reflected in a letter to Congress on behalf of eight large shipping associations and their 26 U.S.- and foreign-flag ocean carrier members. It calls the proposed fee system "not only unprecedented but outrageous."
Another letter calling the fee "a bad idea" came from the National Custom Brokers & Forwarders Association Inc.
A third letter came from Ronald L. Plesser, a Piper & Marbury attorney whose clients include the powerful Information Industry Association and Knight-Ridder.
"This flawed and anti-democratic concept," wrote Mr. Plesser, "could be extended to every other area of government information dissemination."
This complaint was signed by his two clients and by representatives of 21 organizations, including the American Association of Law Libraries, the American Civil Liberties Union, Dun & Bradstreet Corp., OMB Watch and Times Mirror Co., the owner of The Baltimore Sun.
Many critics say the OMB's revenue estimates are too high, anyway.
Transax Data's president, Peter Cass, says Transax generates $6 million a year from the tariff-reporting business. He estimated that paying the proposed user fees might add $12 million to Transax's costs over five years. "CBO has scored this at $740 million," Mr. Cass said. "They are not dealing with fiscal reality."
He has an unusual ally in making this argument in Rob Quartel, one of the FMC's five commissioners.
Mr. Quartel, a free-market proponent and Bush appointee, said that he would prefer to eliminate tariff filing altogether.
As for the database and the hoped-for revenue windfall, he said, "I honestly don't think the Congress cares whether they get those revenues or not. . . . They need to pretend that they will in order to satisfy the 1990 budget agreement."
He also is incensed by the idea that the government would charge companies for information it orders them to collect.
"We require [carriers] to file tariffs in the first place, which are frankly not that useful to them, and then we require the shippers to use the tariffs that we required the carriers to file," he said. "And now we're requiring both sides to pay, so we are going to get them coming and going."
Even the maritime official most intimately involved in the database project seems stumped by the fee-collection scheme.
"Only thing I know is, 35 cents a minute for anybody who gets the information directly from us," said John Robert Ewers, the Federal Maritime Commission's contracting officer in charge. "If they in turn sold it to someone else, the someone else would also owe us 35 cents a minute, and I have no idea how to collect that."