House directs USDA to beef up online services

The House Monday passed a bill directing the Agriculture Department to establish an electronic filing system allowing farmers to do business with the agency via the Internet.

The Freedom to E-File Act (S. 777) passed the House in a 397-1 vote. The creation of an e-filing system will give producers and farmers greater access to information on farm programs and production reports and will enable them to file all necessary paperwork electronically, Congress hopes.

Testifying before a House Appropriations subcommittee last month, Joseph Leo, USDA's chief information officer, said, "USDA is fully supportive of these initiatives. However, this will represent a fundamental change in the way USDA agencies deliver programs and services, as well as how we process administrative functions."

Congress is giving USDA two yeasrs to complete the e-filing system.

Leo also noted that the department will have to develop a "corporate approach" toward e-government, blending the best practices of both the public and the private sectors. The legislation allows USDA to allocate up to $3 million in fiscal 2001 for the program and $2 million for all subsequent fiscal years.

Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., the bill's chief sponsor, emphasized the efficiency of e-filing. "If a producer wishes, he or she will now be free from making a trip to the local USDA office to fill out the forms. This bill is a reasonable, sensible way to help farmers spend more time doing what they do best-farming,"LaHood said in a statement.

Supporters of the bill criticized USDA's overall lackluster performance in the information technology arena. In a statement on the House floor Monday, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., co-chair of the Congressional Internet Caucus, said it was time for USDA to embrace technology and leave its obsolete information systems behind.

Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Tex., cited a GAO report on the department's difficulties in moving forward with modernization efforts, but acknowledged that the agency "recognizes this, and at certain levels, supports this bill."

The House amended the version approved by the Senate in November 1999. The bill now moves to a House-Senate conference, which will produce a final version.

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