Congress: Bye-bye, e-government

Lawmakers apparently have decided that Bush administration officials have not gotten the message. For three years running, Congress has slashed their proposed central e-government fund. So this year, officials decided to forgo a central fund and asked agencies to find e-government funds in existing budgets.

Congress, though, is not buying it. Appropriators have started systematically cutting funds for specific e-government initiatives from agency spending bills.

The House appropriations bill for the Interior Department includes language blocking funds for several e-government initiatives and strongly denounces the current approach to managing the initiatives.

"To date, a lot of funding has been dedicated to these initiatives without a well-thought-out and reasonable approach to addressing requirements," states the bill, which the House passed June 17.

Office of Management and Budget officials took a backdoor approach to funding the initiatives after officials failed to gather congressional support for a central e-government pot, said John Scofield, a House Appropriations Committee spokesman. In the past few years, Congress continually appropriated millions less than officials requested. In fiscal 2004, Congress allotted $3 million, much less than the requested $45 million. In response, the administration requested $5 million for fiscal 2005, which would be supplemented by agency services fees.

"Because Congress was not appropriating meaningful dollars, OMB ... was taxing the agencies, which is in violation of the intent of Congress," Scofield said. "If we don't appropriate funds for something, you can't go around that [and ask] agencies to pony up. We've never been convinced it's a good idea. We've always viewed it as duplicative and unnecessary."

Although the bill indicates that the funding can't come from Interior and related agencies, it sets the precedent for other appropriations subcommittees, said one Senate Democratic staffer. In fact, similar language was also included in the Agriculture Department's appropriations bill, and the committee plans to make a governmentwide statement in the Treasury-Postal Service appropriations bill, Scofield said.

In the Interior bill, four of the 24 e-government initiatives were denied funding: Safecom, Disaster Management, E-Training and E-Rulemaking. The E-Rulemaking initiative is included in the E-Government Act of 2002, which requires all agencies to have an online docket system. If Interior and other agency

officials choose not to use the governmentwide system, they will have to spend the money to develop their own, the Senate staffer noted.

Karen Evans, OMB's administrator for e-government and information technology, emphasized the need for agencies to work together to fund the initiatives. Pooling resources on these programs provides cost efficiencies governmentwide and value to citizens, she said, referring to the E-Training initiative, which brought costs for training materials down from dollars to pennies.

"OMB and federal agencies will continue to work with Congress to highlight similar successes as well as future opportunities to make the federal government more cost-effective and responsive to the citizen," Evans said.

Scofield said taking money from individual agencies is not the best way to

find the money.

"The better way would be to convince Congress to put money in a single fund," he said. "We don't have a lot of cash flying around this year to fund core programs, not to mention these new initiatives."

This language suggests that the appropriations staff is not sure the current funding model is the right one, said Dan Chenok, former OMB branch chief for information policy and technology and now SRA International Inc.'s vice president and director of policy and management strategies.

"The language isn't saying that Congress doesn't support e-government; it's saying the committee has concerns about the way these initiatives are being funded," he said.

Bruce McConnell, former OMB chief of information policy and technology and now president of McConnell International LLC, said administration officials didn't do a good job convincing Congress why it needs to contribute to these projects. The reduction in funding can affect the future of these e-government initiatives, he said.

"Obviously, nobody made the case that the mission of Interior is going to be performed better by these investments," McConnell said. "You have to spend a lot of time to do that, and OMB doesn't have a lot of resources."

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, raised concerns about this language and will continue to do so with other bills, said Davis' spokesman, David Marin.

"On the one hand, we're not adequately funding [e-government] governmentwide," he said. "Then, we allow individual agencies, through their appropriations subcommittee counterparts, to dodge responsibility as well."

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