Maine senator works across party lines to make headway on tough government IT issues
Sen. Susan Collins considers it fortunate — and somewhat unusual — that she finds herself leading an influential Senate committee during her eighth year as a member of the world's most exclusive club.
She acknowledges that some of her predecessors waited years to lead a committee, and she feels "very lucky to have been able to chair a major committee of the Senate at a relatively early stage in my career."
Collins is quickly becoming a driving force on Capitol Hill and a lawmaker to watch as she enters her second year as chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
A native of rural Caribou, Maine, and a Republican considered a centrist, she is in her second term in office. With youthful energy, a ready smile and an easy laugh, she energetically pushes her committee through a busy schedule in a desire for good government.
"I want government to have the confidence of the people we're serving, and that means making sure the government programs are free from waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement," Collins said during an interview in her rose-colored office.
To that end, her wide scope of interests makes her an ideal fit for the far-reaching panel that oversees everything from waste and abuse to federal information technology policies.
"I love the Governmental Affairs Committee because its jurisdiction is extraordinarily broad, and we can do an investigation or oversight hearing on virtually any issue," Collins said. "That's very appealing to me because I'm interested in a lot of different issues."
She admits to being a little too ambitious during 2003 — her first year heading the panel. As a result, the senator who once worked as a legislative aide to her predecessor, Sen. Bill Cohen (R-Maine), kept her committee busy with a fast-paced series of hearings.
Nevertheless, Collins has the support from committee members for her straightforward approach and willingness to forge bipartisan deals.
"As chairwoman, she runs the Senate Committee for Governmental Affairs in perhaps the most bipartisan fashion of any committee in Washington," said committee member Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.).
"Sen. Collins also understands that people expect their representatives in Washington to get things done," Coleman said. "She cares about results."
Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who was the committee's chairman before Democrats lost control of the Senate in 2002, praised her leadership on key aspects of homeland security, such as fortifying ports and agroterrorism.
"She is organized, works hard and wants to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of federal government operations," he said. "She should be commended for her efforts on these and many other issues."
IT helps this self-proclaimed BlackBerry addict maintain her pace.
Collins jokingly calls herself a "crackberry" and confesses to relying on the handheld communication device from Research in Motion Ltd. 24 hours a day. Her only frustration is that it does not work in the northern part of her home state, where she faithfully returns nearly every weekend.
Her hometown is 12 miles from the Canadian border in the northeastern corner of the state and averages about 110 inches of snow each winter. Its Web site boasts that it is home to some of the most "technologically advanced industries in the world" and a good place to live and work.
"I find that [visiting Maine] grounds me and reminds me of what's really important," Collins said. "Priorities can get skewed if you spend too much of your time in Washington," D.C.
This year, those priorities for the committee lean toward scrutinizing the Homeland Security Department, one of many
areas in the group's oversight portfolio.
"The challenges facing the new department are considerable," she said, noting that DHS represents the largest reorganization of the federal government since World War II and involves more than 180,000 employees. "We not only have to do a massive reorganization and merge all of these different cultures and agencies, but at the same time, we need to develop and pursue policies to make us safer."
Two pieces of legislation that will help make DHS a top priority in 2004 are the Homeland Security Grant Enhancement Act and the Homeland Security Technology Improvement Act.
The grant enhancement bill spells out a plan for distributing funds to first responders. Under the department's current grant system, state and local governments and first responder agencies must complete an arduous 12-step application process. This bill would cut the number of steps to two.
"I'm proud of the legislation that we've recorded to help our first responders," Collins said. "We've worked hard on a bill to streamline the grant process to increase funding and give more flexibility in how it is spent."
The grants bill potentially has huge IT implications, with counterterrorism innovations possibly finding their way from the federal government to state and local levels.
Collins would like to see DHS play a crucial role in this program. "I want the [department] to take the lead in evaluating and testing cutting-edge technology, whether it's a computer program or a biological or chemical sensor," she said. "I think this holds tremendous promise in helping us get the best technology to state police and local law enforcement and not just to the FBI."
Collins also plans to evaluate the Transportation Security Administration's plan to screen airline passengers using personal information. The Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II) has received attention from Congress and privacy advocates, and it will receive more scrutiny with the completion of testing this year.
"That program offers both promise and peril," she said. "Whenever you're bringing together large databases, there is the risk of an unwarranted invasion of privacy."
Aside from homeland security, Collins is known as an advocate for education and health care reform. However, many feel that she also has a strong knowledge of IT issues, which she gained as a member of
That experience led to a sharp insight into major IT legislation, such as the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, which called for agencies to appoint chief information officers and treat IT as an investment.
"I wouldn't sell her short in any way, shape or form," said Paul Brubaker, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for SI International and also a former Cohen staff member. "She's very knowledgeable, and I think her perspective is one that she'll devote time and attention when something merits time and attention, not just to make a name for herself."
"Having been a staff person, she completely understands the committee process and legislative process probably better than most senators," he said. "It's a natural fit."
Although Collins' bipartisan approach on issues such as privacy may be effective to her committee leadership, it does not always please conservatives.
The American Conservative Union lists Collins' 2002 rating as 55, which places her as the third lowest Republican senator on its scale. The Republican average score in 2002 was 90.3.
ACU analysts monitor approximately 20 to 25 votes throughout each year on specific issues where a clear-cut line between conservatives and liberals exists. According to union officials, Collins went against GOP standards on abortion, hate crimes and campaign finance reform. She was one of 10 Republicans to vote against impeaching President Clinton in 1999.
However, she falls in line with her fellow senator from Maine, Olympia Snowe. Snowe's lifetime average with the ACU is 52; Collins' is 57.
Despite having critics, Collins does not back off from her bipartisan approach and firmly believes she is taking the right route as committee chairwoman. She is only the third woman to chair a Senate committee.
"At a time in [Washington, D.C.,] when we're seeing a lot of partisan bickering and gridlock, I have made a real effort to lead this committee in a way that minimizes partisan dispute. I'm very proud that of all the votes we've had at various markups [in 2003], only one has been a partisan vote," she said referring to a June 17, 2003, amendment to add more money to the grant enhancement act. "I doubt any other major committee in the Senate could make that claim."
"I think what I'm most proud of is my ability to work with members on both sides," Collins said.
As she whole-heartedly declares her love for her job, she also keeps a sharp eye on the future and effortlessly names many issues she's looking forward to tackling, including her continued investigation into diploma mills, institutions that grant higher education degrees for little work.
No matter which task Collins decides to tackle, it's a safe bet that her committee will be scrambling to keep up.
NEXT STORY: Eye on IT programs