OMB wields budget authority

Clinger-Cohen Act (see OMB authority: Sec. 5113)

Exercising a long-dormant power, the Office of Management and Budget plans to shift funds for information technology projects deemed redundant with any of the Bush administration's 24 e-government initiatives, even if Congress has already approved the funding.

The plan is based on a provision of the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 that gives OMB authority to cut or redeploy funding for IT programs that the office deems redundant or underperforming, according to Norm Lorentz, OMB's chief technology officer, speaking June 25 at the E-Gov 2002 conference. E-Gov and Federal Computer Week are both owned by 101communications LLC.

OMB is sending out what officials have dubbed "Clinger-Cohen letters" to inform agencies about impending cuts, Lorentz said, after which Mark Forman, OMB's associate director of IT and e-government, will announce the list of targeted programs.

OMB officials declined to say how many letters will be sent or the value of the IT programs that will be affected.

Since unveiling the e-government initiatives last fall, OMB officials have said repeatedly that they intend to consolidate government IT investments. The initiatives do just that, cutting across agencies and combining similar programs, such as electronic grants. The use of the Clinger-Cohen provision is a way to accomplish that goal but likely will meet opposition from agencies and Congress, federal IT experts say.

"The Clinger-Cohen Act gives the director of OMB just awesome powers that [OMB] has never used," said Paul Brubaker, chief executive officer of Aquilent Inc. As an aide to then-Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Brubaker was one of several staff members who helped write Clinger-Cohen.

OMB also has taken the extra step to enforce its move by sending the letters through the President's Management Council, which is composed of deputy secretaries and other agency seconds-in-command from across government, who oversee all of the administration's management reform efforts, including the E-Government Strategy, according to Lorentz.

Sending the letters through the council officially signals the support of the agencies' top managers and makes them more difficult to ignore, Brubaker said.

OMB's decision to exercise its authority has far-reaching ramifications, particularly because Congress can do little to counteract OMB's actions under the law, he said. "I'm not sure if everyone in Congress realized what they were doing when they [passed Clinger-Cohen], but we sure did."

Congress, however, plans to fight any big funding changes, said one House Appropriations Committee staff member. "I think [OMB is] going to end up picking a big fight with the appropriations committees."

In addition, many agency managers will raise questions about the fate of the personnel and resources attached to affected programs, said Steve Kelman, a professor of public management at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and a former administrator of OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

Some government officials also may be concerned about antagonizing members of the appropriations committees, who can make or break an agency's plans, said one former federal official who asked not to be named.

"[OMB] may be authorized to do this, but when you go to comply, you're going to want to comply with the appropriations authorizations as well," the former official said.

Such fears may have steered the Clinton administration from using its authority, Kelman said. "This is likely to arouse significant animosity from the agencies and others. It takes a fair amount of gumption to be willing to do this."

However, the reaction within government will also reveal which officials truly support the administration's e-government and other management reform efforts, Brubaker said. "I think this is going to wake a lot of people up."

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Enforcement time

The Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 gives the Office of Management and Budget several powers to ensure good information technology performance at agencies. OMB is now taking advantage of those powers as it pushes its e-government agenda.

Specifically, OMB is enforcing performance accountability, which authorizes the director of OMB to take any action considered appropriate, including:

* Reducing or adjusting the apportionment of an agency's current-year appropriated IT funding.

* Recommending a reduction or increase in an agency's IT budget request to Congress.

* Using other OMB controls over agencies' appropriations to restrict their access to IT funds.

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