E-government battered in conference bill

E-government proponents failed to persuade Congress to include language easing interagency transfers of e-government funds in the final version of the fiscal 2006 Transportation-Treasury spending bill.

The Office of Management and Budget had hoped conferees negotiating a final version of the spending measure would adopt a provision overriding language in other spending bills that prohibits agencies from transferring money to e-government projects without a 15-day advance notice to Congress.

But instead, the conference bill extends the 15-day requirement to all federal agencies. It also requires appropriations committees to approve the transfers. Legislative vetoes over the executive branch have been illegal since Supreme Court ruled in INS v. Chadha, but Congress nonetheless often expects agencies to comply with a de facto veto when it comes to interdepartmental transfers.

The House approved the conference report Friday afternoon by a vote of 392 to 31. Once the Senate approves it, the bill (H.R. 3058) will head to President Bush's desk for his signature.

The White House had included e-government restriction in a statement of administration policy listing measures that could trigger a presidential veto. But the president will sign the bill, said OMB spokesman Alex Conant. "The administration has determined that these provisions do not significantly erode the President's Management Agenda," of which e-government is a part, Conant said.

For the most part, OMB funds e-government collectively through appropriated dollars amassed from individual agency budgets, rather than with a specific line item. Such transfers are legal under the 1932 Economy Act, according to OMB, because agencies are paying for services rendered.

"The Hill is inserting [itself] into a process that basically OMB feels like they have quite the authority to operate," said Norm Lorentz, a former OMB chief technology officer. The White House agency should take the provision as an opportunity to better educate a skeptical Congress on the value of e-government, but "they're not going to be happy about it," Lorentz said.

Spokesmen for the House and Senate appropriations committees have said the e-government funding mechanism amounts to an unsanctioned tax on agencies. Some lawmakers would prefer that OMB request -- in a single line item -- funds for e-government rather than take it from agencies' budgets.

A single e-government fund does exist, but OMB views it as a capital working fund for contributing startup dollars to new projects or sustaining struggling projects. Congress appropriated $3 million for the fund, $2 million less than the $5 million OMB requested. Congress also rejected an OMB request to use $40 million collected from agency fees accumulated through the General Service Administration's Federal Acquisition Service.

The conference bill also includes a provision originating from the Senate that prevents GSA from spending any funds to reorganize without approval from both chambers' appropriations committees.

The language probably will not have too great an effect on GSA's effort to merge its two acquisition services, said Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement. Stephen Perry, the last GSA administrator, in September formally signed a reorganization order to create the Federal Acquisition Service as a replacement for the Federal Supply Service and Federal Technology Service.

The conference bill "may have some effect, but [GSA] has already put the plan in place, they've already rearranged the organization chart, they're already done most of the heavy lifting," Allen said. The fact that the provision became part of the final spending bill is a sign that the agency needs to end its preoccupation with internal organization and start interacting more with the outside world, he added.

Conferees also reduced the dollars available to governmentwide councils, such as the chief information officers council and the chief financial officers council, from $17 million to $10 million.

The conference bill also fully funds the Transportation Department's office of chief information officer. The House-approved version of that bill contained an amendment by Rep. Steve LaTourette, D-Ohio, that would have transferred all DOT CIO funding to Amtrak.

The conference version also lifts a Senate measure restricting the Federal Aviation Administration from spending any money on e-government, but it reduces the FAA's information services account by $500,000, the amount the agency is budgeted to spend on e-government. Additionally, the conferees eliminated a House prohibition against the Federal Transit Administration from spending any money on e-government.

In addition, Congress fully funded the Internal Revenue Service's request of $199 million for its modernization project.

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