Key IT projects at mercy of omnibus funding bill

The fate of a number of key federal information technology projects hangs on last-minute deals made in an omnibus budget bill for eight Cabinet departments and related agencies that Congress hopes to pass by Friday before adjourning for the year.

House and Senate leaders said last week that funding for the Commerce Justice State Labor Health and Human Services Education Treasury and Interior departments would be rolled into a single measure the details of which were being negotiated with the White House. Such a measure will be required to avoid another government shutdown because Congress will not be able to complete work on four separate appropriations bills for these departments and associated agencies before funding expires Sept. 30 the end of the fiscal year.

As of last week President Clinton had signed four of the remaining nine bills funding Congress the Agriculture Department the District of Columbia and military construction projects. Two more bills providing budgets for the Energy and Transportation departments awaited his approval.

Congress is scheduled to take final action on three more measures - for Defense Veterans Affairs Housing and Urban Development and independent agencies and foreign aid - this week.

The omnibus spending measure will be attached to the Defense appropriations bill according to a statement released jointly by the House and Senate leadership on Thursday.

Individual Programs

The House and Senate each would give $100 million for the Automated Weather Interactive Processing System - $19 million less than Clinton requested. Mary Glackin National Weather Service modernization systems manager said that if fully funded AWIPS could be deployed nationwide in two years assuming Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor approves the rollout plan next month. But less money would mean the rollout will take more time Glackin said.

A budget decision also is pending for the embattled Internal Revenue Service Tax Systems Modernization program. The administration has called the deep cuts in TSM proposed by both the House and Senate "Draconian."

Also subject to negotiation is a recently passed Senate amendment that would authorize the General Services Administration to conduct a pilot program to allow up to 10 state governments to participate in the FTS 2000 program. The proposal sponsored by Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) would give states that apply to GSA for FTS 2000 service access to the network if they pay access charges. GSA's administrator would be able to reject unsuitable applications from states.

GSA officials frequently have indicated a willingness to offer FTS 2000 services to state governments. Earlier this year Maryland expressed interest in using FTS 2000 but plans to extend the service to the state were stymied when GSA attorneys determined the agency did not have the authority to cut a deal.

Other IT programs for which funding remains on the table include:* The FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System which the Senate Appropriations Committee has criticized for being nearly $120 million over budget.* The Advanced Technology Program a favorite of Clinton's which the House has voted to eliminate and the Senate Appropriations Committee has recommended not be allowed to expand.* A $33 million contribution the administration requested for the State Department's Capital Investment Fund to replace aging computer systems which the House cut in half.

Coast Guard Program Torpedoed

In taking final action on the Transportation spending bill last week lawmakers all but killed the Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) 2000 program which would provide the equivalent of air traffic control for the nation's ports. Conference report language prohibits the Coast Guard from spending any new money on VTS 2000 instead it provides $1 million "to identify minimum end user requirements."

The Senate would have allowed the Coast Guard to spend the $5.5 million currently in the coffers for the program but instead it cut a deal with the House to transfer that money to other agency programs. "The conferees firmly believe that with greater user involvement and a dedication to truly off-the-shelf technology the Coast Guard can and should implement VTS services at critical ports " the report said but more quickly than the 10-year deployment scheduled for VTS 2000.

The Energy bill completed by Congress last week would increase the department's Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative which is being developed to model nuclear weapons. The project would receive just more than $150 million - 25 percent more than Clinton requested.

Details of the compromise reached on the Defense spending bill were unavailable at press time.

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