Why does Congress hate e-gov?

OMB again fights to remove funding restrictions

It’s hot in Washington, so the White House must be fending off congressional attacks on e-government.

In each of the past five summers, legislators have cut allocations to the governmentwide E-Government Fund—by a total of more than $87 million—and placed restrictive riders on certain spending bills. But this year, the cuts are among the harshest agencies have seen and could stall the Bush administration’s effort to modernize and consolidate agency IT systems.

House lawmakers placed severe limits on how agencies reprogram funds for interagency projects into nearly every agency appropriations bill and the part of the Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development and the Judiciary bill that applies government- wide. The restrictions would require the Office of Management and Budget to submit to Congress an operating plan detailing how much money would be transferred and the reasons why.

“The committee has never been a big fan of these programs and has never given it much money,” said John Scofield, House committee spokesman. “OMB is intentionally going around Congress, and we’ve said multiple times that this program doesn’t make a lot of sense, and OMB continues to do a poor job convincing us that it does make sense.”

Requests ignored

Asking permission to reprogram funds might not sound like a big deal, but former and current federal officials said the process hasn’t always gotten results. Last year, lawmakers never acted on a reprogramming request from the Commerce Department, thereby shutting down the agency’s ability to contribute money to e-government projects. Officials fear that Congress would turn a deaf ear to requests across all of government, experts said.

And the fears are not misplaced. In the committee report, lawmakers said OMB has forced the e-government projects on agencies and “many aspects of this initiative are fundamentally flawed, contradict underlying program statutory requirements and have stifled innovation by forcing conformity to an arbitrary government standard.”

The Senate versions of the bills do not include many of the same provisions, with the exception of long-standing provisions in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration section of the Commerce, Justice and State bill and a specific provision targeting two e-government projects, Safecom and Disaster Management, in the Interior bill.

The House has passed all 11 appropriations bills, while the Senate still must vote on eight; four Senate bills have yet to get out of committee.

A Senate Appropriations Committee spokeswoman would not comment on the e-government restrictions.

As in previous years, OMB, which would not comment on lawmakers’ anti-e-government stance, will have to negotiate the watering down of the provisions when the bills go into conference.
OMB deputy director for management Clay Johnson launched the first negotiation salvo late last month with letters to the Senate and House appropriations committee chairmen.

“[C]ertain provisions in various appropriations measures limit agencies’ ability to contribute funding to the administration’s e-government initiatives, which reduce duplication in IT investments, thereby saving taxpayer dollars, and improving service,” Johnson wrote to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), chairman of the appropriations committees. “I respectfully request your support for constraining the inclusion of riders that restrict the President’s Management Agenda and the opportunities we have to manage Americans’ tax dollars better.”

Industry also is getting involved for the first time.

Tad Anderson, a former OMB official and current vice president at Dutko Worldwide of Washington, is working with the Information Technology Association of America and several integrators to convince Hill staff members of the importance of the e-government efforts.

“We have communicated with the Senate appropriators’ staff that the anti-e-government and anti-President’s Management Agenda provisions in several bills from the House represent a major step back to a pre-9/11 government mentality and would result in a decrease of information sharing across government,” he said. “These provisions negatively impact industry and are bad public policy.”

Anderson said the reaction from the staff members has been positive.

He added that it is important to keep the anti-e-government language out of the Senate version of the Transportation and Treasury bill. The committee is expected to mark up the bill this week.

Congressional support

In addition to industry, OMB may get some help from authorizing committees. A staff member from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said the committee has conferred with administration officials and Senate appropriators’ staff members.

In the past, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), chairwoman and ranking member of the committee, have written letters to appropriators supporting full funding for e-government.

“My guess is there may be a misunderstanding about what the appropriations committee was thinking the money was funded for and reprogrammed for another purpose,” the Senate committee staff member said. “One solution is there needs to be better communication between OMB and the appropriators. Everyone wants the same thing—to develop more cost-effective and efficient solutions. OMB is not trying to subvert the will of appropriators by directing money to interagency programs.”

Other experts said OMB is falling short in communicating the importance of e-government.

“This is an administration that hasn’t spent a lot of time arguing budget details and isn’t interested in making bigger, better government,” said Stan Collender, a budget expert and managing director of the Washington office of Financial Dynamics Business Communications, a communications consultancy based in London. “The basic communication message that projects are cost-effective is not getting out. [OMB director] Josh Bolten is the most invisible budget director in years; he is not quoted or talked about.”

Mark Forman, former OMB administrator for e-government and IT, said Congress’ attack on e-government is a sign that legislators don’t understand how IT is being bought, and OMB needs to do a better job of educating them.

“Organizations are adopting the IT sourcing model to take advantage of IT services,” he said. “There is no way the government can stay modern if Congress blows this. This screws up IBM Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and any other modern IT company’s ability to sell to the government.”

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