Hill moves reflect e-gov’s lower profile

Recent congressional moves leave little doubt about who lawmakers want to control funding for e-government projects: themselves.

Appropriators, who over the last three years have allocated only $13 million of the $100 million requested for the E-Government Fund, recently sought to chop off another funding source for e-government projects.

The House Appropriations Committee last month approved a measure to prohibit the Office of Management and Budget from using surplus funding from the General Services Administration’s Federal Supply Service account to pay for cross-agency e-government projects.

The full House has not voted on the Fiscal 2005 Treasury, Transportation and General Government appropriations bill, in which the language appears, and will not before the August recess ends Sept. 7. The Senate has moved only four bills out of committee, including those for the Defense and Homeland Security departments, military construction and legislative branch.

The moves come as e-government efforts, a high priority in recent years, seem to be losing some of their luster. With the administration focused on Iraq and re-election, and with many agency budgets tightening, e-government no longer commands the support it once did.

An appropriations staff member said the bill was an effort to improve financial accountability among e-government projects.

“We want to make a funding decision once,” said John Scofield, a committee spokesman. “OMB should come back and try to reverse it, not go around it.”

The committee did fulfill the administration’s $5 million request for the e-government fund—$2 million more than OMB received in 2004.

But the committee said it did not want to “relinquish oversight over the development and procurement of IT projects of the various agencies under its jurisdiction” by allowing
e-gov projects to use FSS’ surplus funding.

Price check

Lawmakers also told GSA to evaluate pricing of its services to see if it is overcharging agencies. And finally, legislators said OMB should request and justify funding for e-government projects in its own budget request.

The committee decision does not stop GSA from using the money for projects it manages, however. In 2002, the agency spent $25 million in FSS surplus revenues on three projects: the Integrated Acquisition Environment, Federal Asset Sales and E-Travel.

“If we appropriate money for one thing, agencies cannot use it for another,” Scofield said. “And if we deny one thing, agencies cannot take a second bite of the apple.”

The committee also passed a provision in the Agriculture funding bill that would prohibit USDA from spending $16 million on any of the 25 Quicksilver e-government projects unless the CIO receives approval from the House and Senate committees.

This stipulation is similar to the one in the Interior bill that forbids the department from spending $13.3 million on four Quicksilver projects—Disaster Management, Safecom, E-Training and E-Rulemaking.

OMB did not offer any response to the committee’s decisions.

Mark Forman, former OMB administrator for e-government and IT, said he didn’t think prohibiting GSA from using the FSS surplus was enforceable.

The “whole point of the fund” is to gain benefits from using joint purchasing, he said.

Forman said Congress continues to misjudge the benefits of cross-agency projects, and that some federal officials have opposed e-government initiatives because they would consolidate their own projects.

“It is clear now that there are some people in agencies who do not want to give up ownership of their projects, which are due to be consolidated out of existence,” Forman said. “It has to be clear to people in agencies they will get what they need at a fraction of the cost, and that message must be communicated to appropriators.”

Scofield, though, countered Forman’s claim that appropriators don’t understand e-government. He said lawmakers have made difficult decisions to cut funding, not because of a lack of understanding or support for e-government but because the country faces tough financial times.

The committee did allocate the GSA Office of Governmentwide Policy its full $62 million budget request, $6 million more than 2004. It also gave the National Archives and Records Administration its full $36 million request for the Electronic Records Archive project, a $212,000 increase from 2004.

The Office of Personnel Management would receive $2 million for its Enterprise Human Resources Integration project, $6.6 million for E-Payroll, $2 million for E-Clearance; and $3.3 million for the Recruitment One-Stop initiative.

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