Rumble continues over e-gov funding

Waiting until the final hours of the final day of the fiscal year, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved Sept. 30 about two-thirds of the Commerce Department’s fiscal 2005 e-government budget.

Congress constrained Commerce in its fiscal 2005 spending bill from transferring funds to e-government projects without giving both congressional appropriations committees 15 days’ notice. The department submitted its notification in March.

The Senate committee approved Commerce to spend $2.3 million of the $3.4 million the department had budgeted for e-government projects in fiscal 2005. The House committee gave its nod for the full amount, but Commerce will spend the lesser amount.

Under law, Commerce did not have to wait for congressional committee approval before committing resources that Congress and the president already approved for e-government functions. Such a legislative veto was declared unconstitutional in the 1983 Supreme Court case INS v. Chadha. But in practice, Congress expects that agencies comply with a de facto approval requirement. Many agencies comply with that expectation for fear of having their next years’ appropriations reduced.

“Part of the process at the Department of Commerce is to wait and see what the Congress says,” said Brian Walton, a department spokesman.

Federal Computer Week reported in its Oct. 3 issue that a power struggle exists between the legislative and executive branches over Commerce’s contributions to the 24 e-government projects. The Senate committee acted after that story was printed. But the underlying conflict over how to pay for e-government is unlikely to end soon.

“What we’re really talking about is turf,” said a federal official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Whether funded by agency start-up dollars or fees for services rendered, e-government projects are “a tax, so to speak, on the agencies,” said Jenny Manley, a spokeswoman for the Senate Appropriations Committee.

House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield likewise draws no distinction between “pass-the-hat” funding or “fee for service.”

“Whether it’s raiding agencies’ budgets or using some games to make it seem like you’re not raiding their budget, it’s the same thing,” he said.

As a result, unless Congress specifically identifies an e-government line item in agencies’ spending bills, e-government transfers should occur with congressional permission, Manley said.

But the money for e-government is already appropriated in agencies’ allocation for administrative expenses, said Karen Evans, the Office of Management and Budget’s administrator for e-government and IT. “We’re not saying take money that isn’t for [e-government] and use it on something else,” she said.

OMB notifies agencies of their expected e-government contributions for the next fiscal year months in advance of the annual September deadline for agencies to submit budget requests so that agencies can build that into their administrative budget, the government official said.

But e-government faces opposition not only from Congress, but also from within the federal government. Commerce has contributed mostly reluctantly to e-government and often late in the fiscal year, the official added.

At the beginning of fiscal 2005, Commerce planned to contribute only $1.9 million to e-government, Walton said. But in March, six months into the fiscal year, the department decided to “participate to the full amount we did and pay our fair share,” he added.

As a result, included in the $3.4 million notification of intent to spend e-government money was a request to reprogram funds Congress had appropriated for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s National Marine Fisheries Service. Shifting funds from accounts within agencies’ budgets requires congressional approval. The Senate committee turned down Commerce’s request to use the service’s money.

Asked why the department hadn’t planned for the $3.4 million in its budget, Walton said Commerce “hadn’t decided to participate at that point.”

Government observers note that nailing down cross-agency funding has long been a challenge. But this battle over authority “should not hold up the progress of electronic government, for which the U.S. is starting to slip,” the federal official added.

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