House bill sets stage for homeland debate

Congress is halfway toward passing a high-tech-rich homeland security bill, although the second half of the process could be the toughest.

The House of Representatives, voting 295-132 July 26, put its stamp of approval on legislation that would authorize the biggest reorganization of the federal government in 50 years. But the legislation faces a bumpy road in the Senate where no vote is scheduled until after Labor Day on the Homeland Security Act of 2002.

"The high-tech industry got everything it wanted in the House bill," said David Colton, vice president of strategic initiatives for the Information Technology Association of America.

The most divisive issue now facing the Senate involves how to treat federal workers who are members of unions. Although the House gave President Bush the flexibility to hire workers not covered by unions for national security reasons, the Senate is unlikely to go along with that idea, sources say.

President Bush, though, says he will stand firm. "I'm not going to accept legislation that limits or weakens the president's well-established authorities — authorities to exempt parts of government from federal labor management relations statutes — when it serves our national interest," Bush said.

Unions applauded the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee for voting to keep union protections for the new department.

"The Senate is right not to cave into the White House's philosophy of allowing political managers unregulated freedom to mismanage the new Department of Homeland Security," said Bobby Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

"This same freedom-from-rules approach brought America the unprecedented crash-and-burn corporate scandals of Enron, WorldCom [Inc.] and Arthur Andersen [LLP]. To do the same with our homeland security could result in disastrous consequences," he said.

The House and Senate must come to terms on other issues as well. The House, unlike the Senate, proposes creating an undersecretary for security and technology position and a clearinghouse for vendors offering homeland security solutions.

Also, the House went against Bush's plan to transfer the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Computer Security Division to the new department, but it's not clear what direction the Senate will take.

The House bill, unlike the Senate version, also would limit the liability of high-tech companies that provide technology solutions to the government and create tough security standards for cyberthreats. That measure is especially welcomed by the high-tech industry.

The standards "constitute the strongest computer security program ever designed for implementation in the federal government," said Robert Holleyman, president and chief executive officer of the Business Software Alliance. "These guidelines and standards are rigorous and performance-based so that they can quickly adapt and respond to fast-changing cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities."

One measure pushed by the high-tech industry would limit Freedom of Information Act requests to protect private-sector organizations when they share information about cyberthreats with the government. The measure won approval in the House version, but it's unclear what the Senate intends to do.

Legislation introduced by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and incorporated into the bill would reauthorize and strengthen the Government Information Security Reform Act.

The bill "gives the administration the necessary management flexibilities it will need to set up the new department while maintaining long-standing statutory protections for the American taxpayer and for federal employees," Davis said.

The bill would create a Homeland Security Department that would merge all or parts of 22 federal agencies with a combined budget of $37.5 billion, but how much power the proposed department will have is unclear.

Bush wants every agency within the proposed department to shift at least 5 percent of its budget to the homeland security initiative. But Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) and others say that such a demand would be unconstitutional and that only Congress can decide how federal money should be spent.

"Office of Management and Budget [officials] say the bill is revenue-neutral, but others say it's problematic," ITAA's Colton said. "From an IT point of view, there's probably going to have to be some sort of budget."


Points of contention

The Senate needs to come to terms with several elements of the House's version of the Homeland Security Act:

* Exempting the proposed department from some civil service rules.

* Establishing an undersecretary for security and technology position.

* Creating a clearinghouse of homeland security solutions in the technology industry.

* Limiting the liability of high-tech companies that provide security solutions to the government.


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