Agencies plagued with fiscal fears

Unsure how much, if any, funding they will have next week and for the rest of the year, agencies are scrambling to restructure their information technology spending plans.

In more than two dozen agencies and Cabinet departments, information resources managers are curtailing purchases and delaying contract awards until they are sure how much money they have to spend between now and Sept. 30.

A continuing resolution (CR) that funded salaries for employees in these agencies will expire this Friday, and it was unclear at press time what measure might take its place.

Congress funded three dozen programs for the whole year at fiscal 1995 levels. Even in these programs, officials report they may have to revise their original spending plans. One exception is in law enforcement, where several systems are already funded through sources other than annual appropriations bills.

In the past week, legislators have signaled that they probably will not shut down the government again, as they did twice last year.

But some congressional leaders said they may propose more "targeted" appropriations that fund only the programs they like, gradually cutting the budgets of less popular ones.

At best, the budget turmoil will cause agencies to delay purchases until the end of the year, according to Bob Dornan, senior vice president of Federal Sources Inc. "A lot of systems now are being bought off of indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts, and they are all prepared...to absorb a fair amount of [buying] to the end of the fiscal year."

With funding levels for most departments and agencies in limbo, planning for fiscal 1997 is also in chaos.

The Office of Management and Budget has yet to settle with agencies on their final budget requests, and that could delay next year's appropriations too.

"You can't do the line items for '97 until you know what the line items for '96 are supposed to look like," said John Koskinen, OMB's deputy director. Koskinen said the White House would issue "a 10- to 20-page" budget in early February to meet a legal deadline but will not have a full proposal until later.

Elizabeth Morra, a spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers would not be able to complete their hearings and draft next year's spending bills without Clinton's budget proposal. But, she said, the measures would not necessarily be delayed just because the process starts late.

Susan Tanaka, vice president with the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is promoting a balanced budget, said fiscal '97 bills could hinge on the outcome of the current battle.

"Obviously some agencies are going to be fine," Tanaka said. "But the Republicans are going to try to enforce their agenda as much as possible" and could try to force Clinton to accept more cuts in programs they oppose.

Although spending plans are especially tenuous for agencies facing deep cuts from Congress, even those expecting eventual increases plan to scale back some projects.

For example, the budget impasse comes at a tricky time for NASA's $2 billion Earth Observing System Data and Information System mission at Goddard Space Flight Center.

"We are at the point where our staffing profile and hardware acquisition [requirements] are peaking," said John Dalton, deputy project director for the Earth Observing System Data and Information System. With flat funding under the CR "you lose your ability to keep up with your schedule."

Uncertainty Reigns

At other agencies, officials were not sure whether certain programs might be targeted for cuts. Alan Flesh, trail boss for the Forest Service's $267 million Project 615, said he would have to wait for the next CR to figure out what the impact would be.

At the Justice Department, Frank Sutton, program manager for the $200 million Justice Consolidated Network (JCN), said he was not sure whether the project to supply a common backbone for disparate Justice networks would be funded.

"Because [the program] is not fielded, it won't get the same support" as systems that directly support law enforcement, he said.

On the other hand, projects popular with the Republican leadership have a better chance of receiving full funding. IT systems for such agencies as the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service are expected to get complete support.

"It's our preliminary understanding that INS will be given a continuing resolution into the next fiscal year," said Ron Collison, INS' director of information resources management.

Meanwhile, some agencies threatened with heavy cuts have already decided to delay new projects until the budget crisis is over.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, George Hesselbacher, Notes manager, said his installation of Lotus Notes 4.0 has been postponed.

The Commerce Department, which Congress wants to eliminate, has been operating with 30 percent less money than it expected this year.

Chief information officer Alan Balutis said the reduced budget means programs ranging from modernization of Bureau of Economic Analysis systems to a new Census Bureau network to support the next population count in 2000 have been delayed.

Meanwhile, Balutis said, the National Weather Service may have to delay development of the $266 million Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System if more money is not available by next month, and the Patent and Trademark Office may not be able to proceed with its modernization.

If Congress takes the targeted appropriations route, some observers worry that funding for administrative services will be overlooked.

"We've taken the position that trying to do `salami CRs,' where you pick things out, is almost impossible to do effectively and efficiently because you can never quite describe what you need to include," Koskinen said.

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