Senate committee OKs bill requiring online forms

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved a bill late last
month that would require federal agencies to put most of their forms online within 18
months.


The Government Paperwork Elimination Act, S 2107, also would require federal agencies
within five years to accept electronic payments and to treat digital signatures as legally
valid. The IRS, however, would be exempt from the bill.


Agencies would have to put online forms that are requested by the public at least 1,000
times a year. An agency could avoid the online requirement for certain forms if it proves
the requirement infeasible, but it must publish the reasons.


The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), also would let private
employers store employee tax and labor department forms electronically in company
computers. The bill also directs the Commerce Department to study the bill’s impact
on digital signatures and individual privacy policies.


Both the House and Senate are considering similar versions of the bill. HR 2991 was
sent to both the Government Reform and Oversight Committee and Commerce Committee last
November. There is a turf battle under way between the two committees, but once that is
resolved, markup could occur as soon as next month, a House staff member said.


The bill originally gave agencies three years to implement the requirements. It was
extended to five years after Clinton administration officials argued during a hearing
earlier this year that agencies need more time.


Committee members also removed provisions favoring a single digital signature
technology. Both the Senate and House bills would let agencies decide the kind of digital
signatures they will accept. The bill would also let third parties certify the
authenticity of those digital signatures.


Agencies would also decide the level of security necessary depending on the kind of
form being transmitted. Tax forms, for instance, might require strong encryption; other
forms might require only a credit card number to prove identification, said a staff member
for Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who sponsored the House bill.


“Transactions not involving payments may present less of a need to verify the
authenticity of a document or require less stringent level of assurance than payment
transactions,” Andrew Pincus, general counsel at Commerce, told the committee last
month.


“Other forms of electronic authentication—for example, personal
identification numbers, digitized signatures or voice signatures, to name a few—may
be more accessible to the public and more appropriate for many uses,” he said.


But Mark Day, the Environmental Protection Agency’s deputy chief information
officer, said it is cheaper for EPA to give the public one or two digital signature
options. “We have approached it from a cost-effectiveness standpoint,” he said.


That may mean choosing a more secure form of signature, Day said. “When people
report to us, there are cases, not often, when there is a criminal case. We have to be
able to show that it is a legitimate signature,” he said.


Day said he hadn’t seen the details of the Senate bill but that EPA already is
working on plans to use digital signatures. “We believe we will be there in five
years,” he said.


But hitting the deadline could be tough, Day said.


“It’s the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of the most-used forms can be put online
rather easily; it’s the last 15 to 20 percent that would make it a little more
difficult,” he said. “Clearly there needs to be a threshold on the number of
forms online.”


The Senate committee will likely seek passage of the bill under a unanimous consent
agreement, an Abraham spokesman said.


But passage by the House may be trickier. Until the turf battle ends between the two
House committees, markup in the House is uncertain, the House staff member said.  

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