Cohen, Clinger departures create leadership vacuum

The top two GOP advocates for procurement reform and information technology programs are retiring from Congress at the end of the year.

Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) and Rep. William Clinger (R-Pa.) will leave behind no obvious successors to champion the use of IT in the federal government. Cohen was expected to take over as chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee next year, and Clinger is the current chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight (GRO) Committee.

Neither of the lawmakers most likely to take over these posts has worked on either procurement or IT management issues, and current committee staff members may depart with their bosses.

"The resident knowledge base in oversight and interest is leaving us," said Bob Dornan, senior vice president of Federal Sources Inc.

Cohen and Clinger are among four dozen lawmakers, most of them Democrats, who will quit Capitol Hill this year. Both legislators are ideological moderates, and knowledgeable sources said the political polarization in Congress may have encouraged them to leave.

Clinger, who was first elected 18 years ago, said last Monday that "it's time for me to step down and move on." One insider who has known Clinger for years said the 66-year-old lawmaker has had "a hard year."

Clinger pushed a sweeping procurement reform bill through the House last year that would make some procurement procedures more flexible. He also kept to a grueling pace in shepherding through committee a chunk of the GOP's Contract With America.

Cohen, 55, surprised Hill insiders with his announcement Tuesday that he would leave office to work on international trade issues. He said the current "budget stalemate" convinced him he could "make an even greater contribution to the people of Maine" away from the Senate.

Elected to the House in 1972 and to the Senate six years later, Cohen promoted IT procurement and management reform as chairman of the Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management. His proposals to repeal the Brooks Act and end the General Services Administration's Board of Contract Appeals' jurisdiction over bid protests are pending, along with Clinger's legislation, in a Defense policy bill. President Clinton vetoed the original bill, but congressional conferees completed a new version Friday.

John Koskinen, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, said Cohen and Clinger "have been constructive and positive leaders in Congress in the areas of management reform and improvement." He added that if their legislation is not enacted this year, "it would be a lot more complicated" to resurrect the proposals in 1997 without them.

Supporters and opponents of the procurement bill worry that if the measure does become law, no one in Congress will have enough knowledge of it to make sure it is carried out as intended.

In addition, said Larry Allen, executive director of the Coalition for Government Procurement, new committee chairmen and staff in the House and Senate may result in a "void" of oversight at a time when some agencies may have new leaders, regardless of who is elected president this fall.

"You could have a real congressional void at a time when an agency needs oversight the most, when you have a change at the helm," Allen said.

But Ken Salaets, director of government relations with the Information Technology Industry Council, said no matter who leads the management oversight committees, they will have to pay attention to IT and procurement policy. "I don't think you could help but be interested in these issues because they are critical to helping government provide services," he said.

"New leaders will emerge," one industry source said. "I don't think we'll be out there scrambling to find a champion to take on new issues."

Likely successors to Cohen and Clinger are Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), provided both are re-elected this fall and the Republicans are still in the majority. Thompson, who was elected in 1994 to complete the term of Vice President Gore, has had little exposure to IT issues so far, observers said.

Thompson could not be reached for comment last week.

Burton has been in office since 1983 and has a reputation as a fierce conservative partisan. On GRO, he has been interested mainly in civil service issues and in pursuing alleged wrongdoing by the Clinton administration.

Kevin Long, Burton's press secretary, said Burton is interested in leading GRO, but he would have to look at the IT and procurement areas "as he gets ready to assume that role." Asked whether Burton would work with Democrats on these traditionally bipartisan issues, Long said that "outside the spotlight" Burton has "cordial relationships" with the minority.

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