Tech on the back burner

Because of operations in Iraq and the upcoming elections, many technology initiatives have been pushed to the back burner of Congress' agenda this year.

Issues related to the war and homeland security are getting the most attention, experts said. For example, Congress will likely expedite funding for first responders, which provides political influence in a member's home district.

Other initiatives, such as efforts to create a privacy czar position at each federal agency, are likely to wither as lawmakers try to legislate within a stringent budget.

In an election season, members of Congress introduce legislation largely to improve the public's perception of them. Most experts say Congress passes few of those bills, such as many homeland security bills introduced by House Democrats.

Others, such as the 13 spending bills, are likely to move only because Congress must keep the government funded and operating, experts say.

Some proposals that are likely to move faster include the Acquisition System Improvement Act (ASIA), the latest procurement initiative by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), and legislation that would regulate how public and private organizations outsource jobs to other countries.

"It's going to be a short legislative year, and then the lame duck will mostly be

tied to the appropriations bills [Congress] didn't finish," said Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Enterprise Solutions Division at the Information Technology Association of America. "Everything is at the back burner. There's not much going on [for] anything."

David Marin, Davis' communications and policy director, said ASIA and attempts to limit global sourcing loom largest on the agenda of the House Government Reform Committee, which Davis chairs.

The following is a look at the issues and bills lawmakers are considering.

Privacy

The Strengthening Homeland Innovation by Emphasizing Liberty, Democracy and Privacy Act, or SHIELD Privacy Act, follows a slew of bills introduced by House Democrats. They intend the act to protect civil liberties in the United States while supporting the war on terrorism and the implementation of screening and security programs. It would create a presidentially appointed privacy official in the Office of Management and Budget to coordinate federal privacy policies and prevent civil liberties violations. The legislation would establish a commission to study U.S. efforts to balance homeland security, privacy and civil liberties.

House Democrats also have proposed bills aiming to strengthen communication among first responders and to safeguard public aviation, port and cargo transit

systems. Another bill seeks to hasten the development of new cures to combat bioterrorism.

Procurement

Some work on procurement issues has already been done this year. Two of the provisions of Davis' ASIA bill have been added to the House version of the Defense authorization bill. Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, said the two provisions are "the lower-hanging fruit of ASIA." The main resistance to them had been in the House.

"The fact that they've been attached to the House version bodes well for their enactment," he said. Therefore, those items should be enacted.

Another bill, by Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.), would require agencies to conduct program performance reviews every five years. Platts' legislation, the Program Assessment and Results Act, seeks to amend the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993. The reform committee cleared the bill late last week.

"Members of Congress, taxpayers, federal managers and the executive branch need to know if programs are being managed effectively and if they are achieving the desired result," he said in a statement. "This legislation, if enacted, will allow us to compare data among different agencies to see how different programs with similar goals are achieving results....Most important, federal managers will use the information to improve the way they manage programs."

Rep. Ed Towns (D-N.Y.) attached an amendment that would require officials to list program goals in the Federal Register.

Meanwhile, two senators have pushed for fairness for federal employees in federal competitive sourcing competitions. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) introduced legislation that would boost federal employees' ability to use the Office of Management and Budget's Circular A-76 to protest competitive sourcing decisions that would move their jobs overseas.

Like supporters of the remaining ASIA provisions, proponents are looking to attach the procurement bill to another piece of legislation. Barring this, Allen said, time is running out on the issue. "It is not without controversy," he said, "meaning it would beg some floor time in each chamber."

The bill is intended to ensure that federal employees have the right to appeal to the General Accounting Office during and after job competitions with private-sector contractors. It would allow two federal officials to protest: a representative chosen by employees and the agency tender official, who is the designated official in charge of developing the employee group's bid.

"Providing them with protest rights that are similar to those enjoyed by the private sector is, I think, vital to assuring federal employees that the rules of the game are fair to them," Collins said.

Security

Members of the House Homeland Security Committee are slated to review the Homeland Security Department's first authorization bill, which would provide a baseline to judge the department's annual progress.

Moira Whelan, the committee's Democratic communications director, said the authorization bill is intended to ratify several programs that already exist at DHS. In addition, it will codify the department's management structure and determine congressional priorities for future funding.

Fighting bioterrorism

Legislation to provide resources to respond to a terrorist attack is expected to bypass a formal conference between the two chambers. The Senate's version is likely to clear the House and become law in the next few weeks. The House passed nearly identical legislation last summer.

Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), chairmran of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, said the legislation, which would amend the Public Health Service Act, was vital to harnessing private-sector expertise and supporting strategic objectives of the president's national biodefense directive issued April 28.

Other bills are still taking shape. Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), who chairs the reform committee's Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census Subcommittee has drafted an amendment to the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 to require that federal agencies include computer information security

in making IT strategic plans and spending decisions.

Computing

With the award of the supercomputing contract to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, government officials hope to surpass Japan in the high-end computing arena. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) introduced the High-

Performance Computing Revitalization Act of 2004 in May. The bill has the blessing of officials at the White House Office of Science and Technology and is awaiting further activity — either a full committee vote or subcommittee action.

Noting that the interagency planning process has lost the vitality it once had, Biggert said, "Congress must find a way

to reinvigorate that process." The legislative remedy, she said, is to require the office to direct an interagency planning process and develop and maintain a road map for the research, development and deployment of high-performance computing resources. The bill highlights three areas:

Software, algorithm and applications development.

Development of technical standards.

Education and training.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee has no plans to address supercomputing.

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