Congress

How IT reform could still pass Congress this year

Alan Balutis larger version

Alan Balutis says there are still vehicles available to carry IT overhaul measures across the legislative finish line.

According to media reports, the House GOP leadership is pressing to complete a “Big Four” list of issues before the upcoming August recess: a vote on the supplemental request to deal with the influx of unaccompanied minors across our border; reform of the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs; reauthorization of the federal Terrorism Risk Insurance Act; and passage of a short-term continuing resolution to keep government funded and operating at current levels into the new fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

Notice what’s not on this list? That's right: Any mention of acquisition or IT reform. But there may yet be a glimmer of hope.

To date, the House has passed seven of the 12 annual appropriations bills. The House has also passed versions of the Federal IT Procurement Reform Act (FITARA) -- twice, in fact.

The Democratic-led Senate, meanwhile, has not passed a single appropriations bill -- though that count is a tad misleading. The Senate Appropriations subcommittees have  completed action on and voted out a number of funding measures. The Senate leadership, however, has not brought them to a floor vote for fear that Republicans will attach amendments (e.g., EPA regulation of coal emissions) that will either draw enough Democratic votes to pass or put Democratic senators up for re-election in difficult positions with their constituents. 

Still, legislators in both parties and both chambers agree that a stopgap spending bill must happen -- and what provides the raw materials for crafting a CR? The funding levels agreed to last year are critical, of course, but it also helps to have pre-existing legislative vehicles -- bills that have previously passed floor votes or have emerged with strong majorities from committee. Most of us are quite familiar with what is in FITARA, which could qualify.  But we should also take a hard look at what is in the Senate’s fiscal 2015 Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill and draft report.

There are several provisions in the bill and draft report to improve how the federal government purchases and uses information technology, including funding for Office of Management and Budget efforts to improve use of IT tools to maximize government effectiveness. Here are some other IT reform highlights:

  • The bill reaffirms the role of federal CIOs in driving IT savings and efficiencies within their departments. This includes giving CIOs greater control over their agencies’ spending on so-called “commodity IT” tools and services, as well as spending on data centers and program management IT tools.
  • The bill also would strengthen requirements for the federal IT Dashboard, an online transparency tool, to ensure accuracy and consistency in how agencies disclose IT spending.
  • To help avoid large IT development project failures, the bill would require that OMB identify the 10 highest-priority IT investments under development across federal agencies and report quarterly to Congress on the status of these projects. It also would require quarterly reporting on Defense Department and VA efforts to create interoperable electronic health records.
  • The bill would also allow a pilot project to encourage innovative entities to participate in federal contracting through the use of innovation set-asides.

It's too early to tell, of course, exactly what legislation might move as part of the CR. But must-pass funding bills have advanced IT reform before, and it's worth watching this year as well.

About the Author

Alan P. Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems.

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