IT issues face a crowded docket
- By Judi Hasson
- Sep 11, 2000
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
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
"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
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.