Congress tying up loose ends of tech bills

When Congress returned from its summer break last week, in addition to incomplete appropriations business, lawmakers faced a stack of unfinished technology-related bills.

Information technology bills on lawmakers' agendas include proposals to bolster federal information security and a plan for eliminating government waste. Congress will focus first on trying to wrap up as many appropriations bills as possible before Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, in an attempt to avoid a repeat of last year, when appropriators and the president hurriedly merged several unfinished bills into a complex omnibus bill.

Prominent among unfinished legislative business is the Security and Freedom Through Encryption Act, which removes restrictions on the export of strong encryption. SAFE passed five House committees before the recess. Experts expect SAFE (H.R. 850) to go to the House floor within a few weeks.

In general, companies currently must obtain a license to export encryption higher than 56 bits in key length. For years, high-tech firms have complained that the restriction has hampered worldwide sales of encryption products and stymied the growth of electronic commerce.

U.S. law enforcement agencies argue that the restrictions should remain in place to keep strong encryption out of the hands of terrorists and drug dealers. In addition to lifting export restrictions, the bill also bars the government from requiring key recovery, which would give the government access to digital keys that could be used to decode encrypted messages.

Another bill on Congress' agenda is the Cyberspace Electronic Security Act, drafted by the Office of Management and Budget and the Justice Department. The bill would give law enforcement access to keys held by third parties. It also proposes allowing law enforcement officials to try to get access to encrypted data by other technical means when no third party has a key.

Congress also will consider security and privacy issues in the few months left in the session. In particular, the Computer Security Enhancement Act of 1999 was introduced and referred to the House Science Committee on July 1. The bill would require the National Institute of Standards and Technology to promote the federal use of off-the-shelf products for meeting civilian agency computer security needs.

It also would enhance the role of the independent Computer System Security and Privacy Advisory Board in NIST's

decision-making process. Under the bill, the board - which is made up of representatives from industry, federal agencies and other outside experts - would assist NIST in its development of standards and guidelines for federal systems. Moreover, it would clarify that NIST guidelines apply to the acquisition of security technology for the federal government and that they are not intended to be restrictions on private-sector encryption use.

The House Science Committee plans to consider the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Act (H.R. 2086). The bill would authorize $4.8 billion in IT R&D through fiscal 2004 and devote much of that money to federal grants. But the bill also would authorize expenditures that could be used for in-house federal R&D projects - from supercomputing projects to Next Generation Internet initiatives. A spokeswoman for the Science Committee said panel members were to begin marking up the text of the bill Sept. 9.

Clinton administration officials have expressed frustration over technology funding proposals in Congress. Last month, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta criticized congressional appropriations plans for science and technology, citing proposed cuts of $1 billion from NASA's budget as well as $147 million reduction for the Energy Department's Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative, which replaces underground nuclear testing with computer simulations, and elimination of Federal Aviation Administration funding for the Global Positioning System.

Also on the agenda in the House is the Government Waste Corrections Act (H.R. 1827), introduced by Government Reform Committee chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) in May. The bill would require agencies to follow a practice known as "recovery auditing," which would require agencies to review information on payments to contractors to uncover mistakes such as overlooked discounts for government buyers, vendor pricing mistakes and duplicate payments. Procurement experts cite human error and problems with information systems as reasons that the overpayments are made. But the bill introduced by Burton would allow agencies to spend some of the overpayments they collect on improving their information systems.

The Government Management, Information and Technology Subcommittee marked up the bill and forwarded it to the full Government Reform Committee on July 21. One source familiar with the legislation said that the full committee may mark up the bill this month and that House leadership should shepherd it quickly to the floor as a stand-alone bill.

One staff member at the House Government Reform Committee, said the committee would address "a gamut of issues" when Congress returns - from continued oversight of progress on the Year 2000 computer problem to Burton's "waste correction" proposal. "We do expect expedited consideration [of the Burton bill]," the staff member said.

Other unfinished IT-related legislation includes the Paperwork Elimination Act (H.R. 439). Introduced by Rep. James Talent

(R-Mo.), the bill would require OMB to promote electronic transmission of information as a substitute for paper when small businesses and individuals provide information to the federal government. The bill would affect information ranging from benefits applications to tax forms. The act also requires the director of OMB to put together a governmentwide strategic plan that includes a progress report on electronic submissions as well an explanation of how the paperwork burden on small businesses and individuals has been reduced by use of electronic transmission of information.

Moreover, it would require each federal agency to provide the option of electronically transmitting forms and would prohibit an agency from collecting information until it has first published a notice in the Federal Register describing how respondents may submit information electronically. The bill passed the House swiftly in February and was passed on to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee during the same month. But so far the bill has seen little action in the Senate.

For now, though, Congress' attention is focused on appropriations, with House leadership planning to concentrate in the next week on appropriations for several key departments: Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor and Veterans Affairs. In following weeks, attention should shift to the Republican tax-cut plan and campaign finance reform, according to one staff member working for House leaders.

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