Legislating in an election year

Eye on legislation: Issues range from GSA consolidation to first responder funding

House Government Reform Committee

Just about everything that goes on this year on Capitol Hill must move forward in the shadow of the 2004 elections, which will likely taint just about every bill that moves through the legislative process.

Lawmakers are often hamstrung by the lack of money, so creating a budget is an annual ordeal. And high on the to-do list for members this year is finishing up last year's funding.

There are other money issues, however, awaiting members of Congress, not the least of which is how to fund the efforts of first responders and how — or whether — to reorganize the General Services Administration.

The underlying question is how much will get done under that election shadow.

Funding for first responders

Why you should care

Lives could be lost if the first people on the scene of a crisis do not have the technology and training they need to respond.

What's coming

Bills to watch:

* Faster and Smarter Funding for First Responder Act (H.R. 3266)

* Homeland Security Grant Enhancement Act (S. 1245)

Homeland security technology transfer

Why you should care

Homeland security could benefit from the inspiration and innovations of the private sector.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is interested in this one, in particular Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who wants the Homeland Security Department to take the lead role in testing new security technologies.

Bill to watch:

* Homeland Security Technology Improvement Act (S. 1612)

Reorganization of the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service

Why you should care

FTS remains the primary source of governmentwide contracts for technology products and services.

What's coming

Officials will review efforts made by GSA to realign FTS' organizational structure. The reviews also relate to the use of GSA's information technology fund.

E-government

Why you should care

If the Bush administration remains committed to e-government, agencies may be busy on numerous fronts, even beyond the initial 24 initiatives.

What's coming

Lawmakers will continue to oversee the E-Government Act of 2002 and related issues, including security.

The Government Paperwork Elimination Act

Why you should care

If fully enforced, GPEA could require agencies to commit a fair amount of resources.

What's coming

A House committee will determine if further legislation is needed.

Never underestimate the impact an election year can have in the halls of Congress. Priorities often flip-flop, with some issues getting heightened importance because of political wrangling, while others are deemed either too trivial or too dangerous to pursue.

One beneficiary this year could be state and local public safety agencies. First responders could see increased financial support from the federal government as part of a broad emphasis on homeland security. Another initiative to fund commercial development of homeland security technology might also benefit.

But Congress is also likely to continue tending to more mundane matters. As tech-savvy members have moved into key leadership positions during the past several years, they have increased their oversight related of policy and spending. Several issues figure large this year, including e-government and procurement issues.

Funding first responders

This year, much attention will be given to how first responders receive federal funding. Both chambers of Congress will be looking closely at similar legislation intended to streamline the funding process and place money in the areas it is needed most.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee has passed the Homeland Security Grant Enhancement Act (S. 1245), while the House Select Committee on Homeland Security will attend to the Faster and Smarter Funding for First Responders Act (H.R. 3266).

Both bills would create a single access point to grant funding, reducing the current grant application process from 12 steps to two. The legislation also would create more flexibility to earmark additional funds for high-threat areas.

Brendan Peter, senior director of the Enterprise Solutions Division at the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), an Arlington, Va., industry group, said this legislation is an effort to "move away from a strictly formula approach that doles out money and identify the areas in need that face the biggest threat."

The Senate committee passed the bill, which awaits action on the Senate floor. The Faster and Smarter Funding bill unanimously passed out of the House committee's Emergency Preparedness and Response Subcommittee last November.

Homeland security tech bill awaiting action

Along with legislation regarding first responder funding, the Governmental Affairs Committee has also passed a bill intended to provide counterterrorism technology to state and local law enforcement agencies.

Sponsored by committee Chairwoman Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the Homeland Security Technology Improvement Act (S. 1612), would facilitate the process of transferring technological innovations from the federal level to state and local agencies.

"By providing counterterrorism technology to law enforcement agencies, we can help our first responders to become 'first preventers,'" she said.

Collins also said that she would like to see the Homeland Security Department take a leading role in testing and evaluating new technologies.

This legislation is intended to work in concert with the grant enhancement act. After innovative technologies are identified, the improved grant process would then ensure a speedier delivery to state and local agencies.

"A crucial part of the process is ensuring that the first responder community has access to the best technology," said Peter, who stressed that this bill goes hand-in-hand with funding. "These issues add value to ensuring the flow of dollars to people on the front lines."

GSA's Federal Tech Service re-org being monitored

After posting an aggressive information technology-related agenda in 2003, the House Government Reform Committee will continue its oversight of IT issues in 2004, including the realignment of the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service.

David Marin, spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the committee, said redundancies have been identified between the work performed by FTS and GSA's Federal Supply Service, including IT sales, marketing and contract offerings.

This year, committee members will consider possible legislative solutions for better management of contracting activities.

FSS operates through GSA's special IT fund and offers federal agencies a range of telecommunications services. Combined, FTS and FSS do $30 billion in business each year, according to committee reports.

In October 2003, Davis acknowledged that FTS "seems to have been the primary source of GSA's recent management challenges" regarding the use of the IT fund. He also said the problems could involve acquisitions valued up to $100 million.

The reform committee will also closely monitor GSA's plans to develop a next- generation governmentwide telecom program, which will follow the popular FTS 2001 contract.

Overseeing e-government

The committee will continue its oversight of federal agencies' implementation of the E-Government Act of 2002 as the legislation heads into its second year.

Federal agencies were supposed to begin submitting their first e-government reports demonstrating their progress in implementing the act to the Office of Management and Budget last month. The law authorizes initiatives that are intended to further the federal government's use of IT to improve services and operations.

Marin said the reform committee would examine the funding levels for such initiatives. Funding for e-government implementation has been an important issue since its 2004 budget was set at $3 million, a sharp drop from the Bush administration's request of $45 million.

The committee will also look into the extent to which agencies are coordinating efforts for e-government projects, as well as efforts being taken to ensure a secure electronic environment, according to Marin.

Olga Grkavac, an executive vice president of ITAA, said she is concerned about the future of the act in the wake of key personnel leaving OMB, including Mark Forman, former OMB e-government administrator, and Dan Chenok, the agency's branch chief for information policy and technology.

"There's obviously been a change in personnel, so I think there are a lot of unknowns for 2004," Grkavac said.

Dealing with paperwork

The Government Paperwork Elimination Act requires federal agencies to give industry and citizens the option of doing business with the government electronically.

Yet the deadline for implementing those electronic innovations passed in October 2003. Changes to business practices were made, including federal agencies offering digital forms and accepting electronic signatures.

The reform committee plans to examine agency compliance during hearings this year, and then determine whether further legislative action will be necessary, Marin said.

Grkavac is among the government-watchers who feel more time may be necessary to implement the entire schedule of changes.

"Government has clearly made great strides, but the deadline of 2003 for something as big as the government was probably unrealistic," she said.

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