Hill holds off on IT reforms until autumn

Changes in how the government buys computers are likely to be
included in a broader, governmentwide procurement reform, not in the plan proposed by Sen.
William Cohen, House and Senate staff members speculated last week.


The Senate has adjourned for its summer recess, postponing final action on the fiscal
1996 Defense authorization bill. The Maine Republican succeeded attaching his Information
Technology Management Reform Act of 1995 to that bill before lawmakers left town earlier
this month.


The reforms proposed by Cohen essentially would repeal the Brooks Act, the 30-year-old
law that established the General Services Administration as the government's IT buying
czar.


But across Capitol Hill, Rep. William Clinger (R-Pa.) has his own procurement agenda,
one with fewer specific changes in IT oversight. And though Clinger earlier praised
Cohen's proposals, he has not adopted them in his bill, HR 1670, or offered a House
version of the Cohen bill, S 496.


Some House staff members suggested that Clinger would prefer that Congress move forward
with a version of his procurement bill, including some additional changes for IT.


The reason: It should prove easier to get action on overall reform of the federal
procurement process before Congress resolves differences over the Defense authorization
bill.


"We would still prefer to have something as a separate, freestanding bill,' one
House staffer said. "That has always been the position that we have taken.'


A Senate working group is expected to come forward with a revamped standalone
procurement bill in September, one House staffer said. "We could be moving a
procurement bill before the Defense bill even goes to conference,' the staffer said.
"A lot depends on the Senate.'


Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), S 496's co-sponsor, seems amenable to this idea.


"While the current amendment highlights important issues of good management in
government, we know that most of these problems are not unique to information technology.
They beg a broader solution,' Roth, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee,
said on the Senate floor, speaking for the Cohen amendment to the DOD bill.


Roth spokeswoman Ginny Koops said, "I think IT would be incorporated' into the
Senate working group's overall procurement reform plan.


Though mostly unchanged, the Cohen amendment to the Senate's Defense authorization bill
does differ from S 946 in one significant way. The amendment does not call for the
creation of a national chief information officer within the Office of Management and
Budget. Instead, the measure would require only the CIOs within the cabinet-level
agencies.


The change seems like an olive branch offering to critics who claimed that the bill
simply shifted the IT oversight bureaucracy from one agency to another.


Otherwise, the amendment includes the bulk of Cohen's original requirements. It still
would shift computer purchase oversight to OMB, eliminate the GSA Board of Contract
Appeals, do away with unique federal rules on computer purchasing and encourage agencies
to buy commercial products.


The House also has seen a procurement reform rider attached to its 1996 Defense
authorization bill. That amendment incorporates most of the items in Clinger's HR 1670 but
was changed on the House floor to restore the full-and-open competition standard for
federal contracting. Clinger had proposed giving agencies authority to limit the bidders
in a competition, with the goal of speeding up procurement.


The differences in the amendments attached to the House and Senate Defense
authorization bills mean that lawmakers will have to work out a compromise in conference.


Those involved with the Cohen proposal also discounted concerns that a broader
procurement reform bill would water down significant changes proposed for IT.


"There's no reason to think that [the Cohen proposal is] inconsistent with the
proposal the Senate procurement working group is working on,' said Cohen spokesman Michael
T. Townsend.


The decision to attach S 946 to the Defense authorization was driven by time, he said.
"You can keep waiting and waiting for something to happen,' Townsend said. "The
Defense bill presented an opportunity to move forward quickly.'


Despite the amendment, the Cohen camp plans to participate in developing the overall
reform proposal because a standalone bill could have a better chance of getting
presidential approval, Townsend acknowledged. The Defense authorization bill has been
controversial because it calls for the Defense Department to receive more than $7 billion
in funds not requested.


Townsend said the Clinton veto threat is a concern. "At this point, you have to
wait and see how it's all going to play out. If this doesn't work, we'll have to do
something else,'' he said.


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