Senate passes VA, USDA spending bills with IT restraints

The Senate has approved two more fiscal 2006 spending bills for the Agriculture and Veterans Affairs departments and the Food and Drug Administration. Lawmakers continued in both bills to exert limits on department IT spending, such as restricting funds and requiring notification of major IT projects, as they try to control costs.

The Senate and House now must iron out the differences in their respective versions of the bills.

In the $100.2 billion Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies appropriation, Agriculture will have to obtain congressional approval before consolidating or reducing any administrative or IT functions in the department.

The CIO's office has overseen a service center modernization to restructure Agriculture's county field offices, modernize and integrate business approaches and replace aging information systems with a modern Common Computing Environment, which takes advantage of information sharing, customer service and staff efficiencies.

The Senate earmarked $128 million for the Common Computing Environment, $14 million less than President Bush requested but $3.5 million more than last year.

The CIO's office will receive $16.7 million for operations, which is what the administration requested and slightly more than was enacted last year.

The Senate praised the department's National Finance Center for its e-Payroll consolidated services for other government agencies and directed it to consider expanding its services to include automated data processing and cross-servicing capabilities.

The national animal identification program would receive $32.9 million so Agriculture, in partnership with industry, can track animals as they move through the meat supply chain and respond quickly to outbreaks of disease.

The Senate approved $83 billion for the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs spending bill, of which $34 billion was for VA discretionary programs. The Senate added $2 billion to medical services to total $23.3 billion, because the department had underestimated its need to cover more veterans for medical care, especially returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. Funding for medical services is $1.3 billion more than what the president had requested.

The Senate supports reorganizing the department so the CIO has authority to manage all IT projects in order to increase their success.

The Senate also will restrict use of IT funds for the HealtheVet project to modernize VA's VistA electronic records system until VA's IT portfolio management process matures to a level that can take on this project with a predictable chance of success.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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