Summer of e-government discontent

House measures undermine e-gov efforts, proponents argue

The House has approved a series of measures that e-government proponents argue would undermine a five-year effort to establish a governmentwide information technology infrastructure.

Provisions included in spending bills approved by the House in recent weeks limit the power of federal agencies to transfer e-government money. The provisions also cut funding for some e-government projects and entirely eliminate funding for the Transportation Department's Office of the Chief Information Officer.

For example, an amendment to the departments of Transportation, Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development, the Judiciary, District of Columbia and Independent Agencies appropriations bill for fiscal 2006 would eliminate the General Services Administration's eTravel budget.

"These mega-contracts have clearly gone too far, and it is time that we say, 'Enough is enough,' " said Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), sponsor of the measure to cut eTravel. Lawmakers approved it 233-182, and it now awaits Senate action.

Velázquez's amendment would cause "the shutdown, the entire shutdown of the eTravel program," said Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's Transportation-Treasury subcommittee.

Another amendment passed by a voice vote eliminates funding for the DOT CIO's office and transfers its $11.9 million budget to Amtrak, the financially strapped train service.

A spokesman for the amendment's author, Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), said DOT and the CIO's office would continue functioning despite the funding cut because the department's secretary or Congress can shift funds to or from any office, including the CIO's.

"We're not trying to eliminate anything," the spokesman said.

LaTourette's amendment increases Amtrak's original $550 million budget to $1.2 billion by taking the money from various DOT offices.

"The funding levels of $550 million would force Amtrak to shut down all operations and declare bankruptcy," LaTourette said. "America relies on this service."

Some policy watchers doubted the move was an attack on the CIO, noting that the Senate Appropriations Committee and DOT's inspector general recently voiced concerns about the budget for the CIO's office.

However, Mark Forman, former OMB administrator for e-government and IT, said the move was most likely retribution. "That's the way it works on the Hill," he said.

GSA and DOT officials declined to comment on the House bill.

Another section of the Transportation-Treasury bill would prohibit cross-agency transfers of funds for e-government projects until the Office of Management and Budget submits plans to Congress detailing the use of those funds and how it would affect other programs.

That amounts to an illegal legislative veto over executive branch action, White House officials said in a statement of administration policy. The statement contained a veto threat against a handful of provisions, including the limits on cross-agency transfers because it would weaken the President's Management Agenda.

Not included in the White House veto threat was a $2 million reduction of the central e-government fund. The reduced amount of $3 million for e-government in fiscal 2006 went unchallenged on the House floor.

The OMB e-government provision is still relatively better than language approved by the full House and the Senate Appropriations Committee in the spending bill covering the Justice Department and other agencies, e-government proponents say.

A provision in the House version of the bill that covers NASA and the Commerce, Justice and State departments would prevent those agencies from reallocating funds for e-government projects by eliminating or reorganizing existing programs until after notifying Congress of their intentions.

Congress is acting as a roadblock to e-government transformation, Forman said. The plan was for agencies to turn off redundant systems during fiscal 2004, but they didn't do that, he said. "Now it's 2005, and they still didn't do it," he added.

Government officials often talk about the need to better educate Congress about e-government, but now "we're at a point of overcoming resistance to change," Forman said.

Appropriators are uncomfortable with cross-agency solutions because accountability becomes blurred, Forman said. But unless lawmakers can embrace governmentwide solutions, "it's going to be very destructive to the federal government," he said.

Whether all the provisions become law remains an open question. "If I were [DOT CIO] Dan Matthews, I wouldn't be updating my résumé yet," said Paul Brubaker, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at SI International, adding that LaTourette's amendment "has pretty much zero chance" of passing.

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