Slow on the uptake

Two years after the Bush administration threw its weight behind the concept of e-government, Congress still doesn't get it.

For the second year running, the House and Senate have rebuffed the administration's request for $45 million to support initiatives that improve the delivery of government information and services online, requiring the administration to settle for $5 million for fiscal 2003 — the same amount Congress doled out for fiscal 2002.

The decision might be cast as one of many cutbacks forced on Congress by the increasing cost of the war against terrorism and a potential war against Iraq. Such cutbacks are indeed necessary and technology programs cannot be exempt. But this cut shows a lack of perspective.

The Bush administration is requesting a relatively small investment for a program with a potentially significant payoff. The Office of Management and Budget envisions the e-government fund as seed money, a way to jump-start innovative projects that could improve government services.

Perhaps the cut also shows a lack of trust. The concept of an e-government fund seemed risky when the fiscal 2002 budget was proposed. OMB, for example, intends to use the fund to support interagency collaborations, rather than working through the traditional appropriations process. That strategy requires Congress to take a leap of faith and trust OMB's good judgment.

During the past two years, OMB officials have proven they are good stewards of information technology funding. If anything, OMB now provides the kind of oversight Congress has sought since passing the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 and the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996.

These landmark laws set up new standards for how government buys, uses and manages technology. But only now are we seeing an administration committed to holding agencies to those standards. OMB officials have earned the trust they are asking of Congress.

Not everyone on Capitol Hill is so shortsighted. Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) sent a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee last month asking members to reinstate the $40 million, but to no avail. We only hope the committee, as it deliberates the fiscal 2004 budget, doesn't make the mistake a third time.

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