IT issues face a crowded docket

Like a lion feeding its young, Congress is facing hungry contractors and

high-technology lobbyists who want the answer to just one question: Where's

the money?

Only three weeks before lawmakers plan to adjourn for the year and head

home to campaign for re-election, they are swamped by dozens of must-do

bills and pressure to keep money flowing to the high-tech revolution.

But with time running out, lawmakers have to pick their priorities,

and that may leave some important legislative initiatives out in the cold,

including bills to keep long-range modernization plans afloat in agencies

such as the Internal Revenue Service and the U. S. Customs Service.

Without extra money, modernization programs will be forced to limp along

on last year's funding, delaying plans to retire legacy systems and integrate

new technology into their management plans. And other federal agencies will

be left with a flat budget instead of a bulging bank account to expand programs

and start new ones.

The agencies' plight is self-inflicted in some cases, according to one

lawmaker. "There are some agencies in government that are very wasteful

of their IT budget," complained Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.).

Nevertheless, he said, there is bipartisan support for several high-tech

issues, including research and development. And he said there are other

issues where Congress should take a "go-slow" approach and punt to next

year, such as Internet and privacy issues.

"We've made so much progress in some Internet-related areas in the last

two or three years," said Goodlatte, who is co-chairman of the Congressional

Internet Caucus and chairman of the House Republican High-Tech Working Group.

Even so, there's still work ahead and little time left this year.

Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology

Association of America's Enterprise Solutions Division, said ITAA has identified

two key issues: lowering the barriers for doing business with China and

increasing the number of H-1B visas for foreign workers who are to be hired

by the U.S. IT industry. Both politically charged issues have the support

of the IT community, which is pushing to beat the clock and get them enacted

before Congress leaves town.

The visa bill has long-term implications for federal agencies. With

the retirement of nearly half the federal IT workforce expected in the next

five years and the move to push government into the Digital Age, highly

trained IT workers will increasingly be in demand to fill key jobs at every

government agency.

"In particular, legislation that will open up the world's largest market,

China, and help alleviate shortages of high-skilled workers, is essential

to the continuing vitality of the high-tech industry," said William Archey,

president of the American Electronics Association (AEA), which represents

3,000 U.S.-based technology companies.

But a host of other high-tech bills introduced in the 106th Congress

are unlikely to see any action in this fast- forward season. They include

a ban on Internet gambling, extending a moratorium on Internet taxes, privacy

issues and even time bombs such as more money for information security.

President Clinton has asked Congress for a 15 percent increase in spending

for security in the wake of such cyberattacks as the "love bug" and the

potential for terrorist threats on systems nationwide. But so far, Congress

has balked at spending more money on system security.

"We need to be realistic. There is limited time left this year. The

most pressing issue is passing appropriations bills," said David Marin,

a spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who represents the high-tech Northern

Virginia area.

Even more important is the pressure lawmakers are feeling to deal with

the shortage of high-skilled workers.

According to a Sept. 6 letter written by the Telecommunications Industry

Association, which represents 1,000 telecom companies, to Congress, the

White House and the presidential campaigns: "We're facing a staggering workforce

shortage because there aren't enough highly skilled people to go around."

Although Congress approved 115,000 H-1B visas for this year, they were

exhausted by early March. Without the new legislation — which would raise

the number to 200,000 — the AEA argues that U.S. high-tech firms will be

placed at a "major competitive disadvantage relative to their European competitors."

In addition, many IT organizations have cried foul over the Truthfulness,

Responsibility and Accountability in Contracting Act, designed to force

federal agencies to more effectively track outsourcing costs and savings

and for competition between government and the private sector.

Supporters say the measure will protect government jobs and save taxpayer

dollars, but critics say it will halt outsourcing and waste taxpayer money.

But that measure, and others, may fall victim to lack of time on the

lawmakers' agenda. If so, they'll almost certainly be back on the legislative

agenda when the 107th Congress convenes in January.

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