IT not a top priority, but tech issues are still pervasive
With a cash-strapped budget and another possible war on the horizon, Congress faces big challenges this year in molding information technology policies — from homeland security to procurement reform.
Two new committee chairmen will dominate IT issues, and a new panel will scrutinize the creation of the Homeland Security Department, which will be located initially in Washington, D.C. Money will be tight, and lawmakers' attention could be diverted by global crises.
"IT won't be at the top of the priority list because we have such a long laundry list," said Norman Ornstein, congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "War and other defense expenses are going way up, [and] a prescription drug benefit for seniors and the budget" are other top priorities.
Money will be the big IT issue, but so will a range of policy debates, including the ban on Internet taxation expiring in the fall, trade policy, digital copyright, telecom reforms and privacy, not to mention integrating government systems.
"Congress passed the Homeland Security Department, but everyone pretended it was a costless exercise," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America. Integrating "22 agencies and federal, state and local systems will cost money."
Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), new chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, will oversee the building of the department. He will be a major voice on whether plans to integrate those federal agencies will work.
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, "our most important job is protecting American citizens," Cox said. "I will work to make our government more effective in the fight against terrorism. I will ensure that it is done efficiently and that Congress and the federal government work together toward this common goal."
Congress already plans to adjust the Homeland Security Act. Those changes include more money for first responders to develop better communications networks and interoperability with nearby communities and the federal government. Lawmakers also want better border security, using technology to do it and tougher regulations for both importing and exporting cargo.
But the devil is always in the details, and battle lines already are drawn over policy and politics.
"Congress has a full IT agenda this year," said David Nadler, Washington lawyer and IT expert. "I expect to see significant budget battles as the [White House] moves to bolster homeland security and national defense. Similarly, Congress will be asked to appropriate substantial dollars to implement the new E-Government Act, and agencies will also seek added funding as outsourcing expands under the new A-76 rules."
Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) now leads the House Government Reform Committee, where he has promised a new agenda for procurement reform (see story, Page 68). Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is the new chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee; she has vowed to make privacy a top concern.
With President Bush proposing a $59 billion IT budget in fiscal 2004 — a 12 percent increase over fiscal 2003 — Congress will have plenty of opportunity to buy badly needed computer systems throughout the government.
"It will be a robust year for IT," said Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement.
But much of the congressional attention will be directed to issues that directly affect homeland security — including privacy and mining information about Americans from an array of databases. Not wasting any time, senators took the first steps last week to stop a controversial Pentagon project that would gather information on Americans to search for potential terrorists.
Total Information Awareness (TIA) is a computer system the Pentagon is developing that can collect massive amounts of personal information from around the world and analyze data on everyday transactions. Former Navy Adm. John Poindexter, a controversial figure from the Reagan administration's Iran-contra scandal, is directing the program that members of both political parties want to halt.
Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and John Corzine (D-N.J.), speaking at a press conference earlier this month, said the project is untested and cannot be trusted not to violate Americans' rights. Corzine called it "Orwellian" and said it is illegal to snoop on innocent Americans. They introduced legislation on Jan. 16 to put a moratorium on TIA until Congress investigates it.
Wyden and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) also introduced legislation to stop federal money from flowing to TIA except for foreign intelligence purposes. The bill would also prohibit the gathering of data on American citizens.
Although it may be a controversial year for technology, it will also be a good one, many experts predict.
"I think you have a very tech- friendly Congress and an administration, particularly within the Office of Management and Budget, that understands technology," said Douglas Sabo, director of government relations for Network Associates Technology Inc., a network security company.
The Congressional agenda
The 108th Congress will deal with many issues, including the following:
* Homeland security — Lawmakers will tinker with the Homeland Security Act, toughening standards and finding more money for programs to protect U.S. citizens.
* Money — President Bush is proposing a $59 billion information technology budget for fiscal 2004, but it will take months to get money bills through Congress. Lawmakers are still trying to finish the fiscal 2003 budget, which includes $52 billion for IT.
* Privacy — Lawmakers will try to protect Americans from being spied on by the government. First up is a proposed moratorium on the Total Information Awareness project, which would gather information, such as credit card transactions and motor vehicle records, from databases.
* Oversight — Congress will oversee the Homeland Security Department's development, the E-Government Act of 2002 and the Federal Information Security Management Act, which requires agencies to use information-security best practices.
* Procurement and civil service reform — Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), new chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, will examine how the government buys services and products. He also wants to revamp the Senior Executive Service.
NEXT STORY: Cities win digital divide grants