IT Issues Face a Crowded Docket

Like a lion feeding its young, Congress is facing hungry contractors and high-technology lobbyists who want the answer to just one question: Where's the money?

Only three weeks before lawmakers plan to adjourn for the year and head home to campaign for re-election, they are swamped by dozens of must-do bills and pressure to keep money flowing to the high-tech revolution.

But with time running out, lawmakers have to pick their priorities, and that may leave some important legislative initiatives out in the cold, including bills to keep long-range modernization plans afloat in agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the U. S. Customs Service.

Without extra money, modernization programs will be forced to limp along on last year's funding, delaying plans to retire legacy systems and integrate new technology into their management plans. And other federal agencies will be left with a flat budget instead of a bulging bank account to expand programs and start new ones.

The agencies' plight is self-inflicted in some cases, according to one lawmaker. "There are some agencies in government that are very wasteful of their IT budget," complained Rep. Robert Goodlatte a Republican from Virginia.

Nevertheless, he said, there is bipartisan support for several high-tech issues, including research and development. And he said there are other issues where Congress should take a "go-slow" approach and punt to next year, such as Internet and privacy issues.

"We've made so much progress in some Internet-related areas in the last two or three years," said Goodlatte, who is co-chairman of the Congressional Internet Caucus and chairman of the House Republican High-Tech Working Group. Even so, there's still work ahead and little time left this year.

Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America's Enterprise Solutions Division, said ITAA has identified two key issues: lowering the barriers for doing business with China and increasing the number of H-1B visas for foreign workers who are to be hired by the U.S. IT industry. Both politically charged issues have the support of the IT community, which is pushing to beat the clock and get them enacted before Congress leaves town.

The visa bill has long-term implications for federal agencies. With the retirement of nearly half the federal IT workforce expected in the next five years and the move to push government into the Digital Age, highly trained IT workers will increasingly be in demand to fill key jobs at every government agency.

"In particular, legislation that will open up the world's largest market, China, and help alleviate shortages of high-skilled workers, is essential to the continuing vitality of the high-tech industry," said William Archey, president of the American Electronics Association (AEA), which represents 3,000 U.S.-based technology companies.

But a host of other high-tech bills introduced in the 106th Congress are unlikely to see any action in this fast- forward season. They include a ban on Internet gambling, extending a moratorium on Internet taxes, privacy issues and even time bombs such as more money for information security.

President Clinton has asked Congress for a 15 percent increase in spending for security in the wake of such cyberattacks as the "love bug" and the potential for terrorist threats on systems nationwide. But so far, Congress has balked at spending more money on system security.

"We need to be realistic. There is limited time left this year. The most pressing issue is passing appropriations bills," said David Marin, a spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican from Virginia, who represents the high-tech Northern Virginia area.

Even more important is the pressure lawmakers are feeling to deal with the shortage of high-skilled workers.

According to a Sept. 6 letter written by the Telecommunications Industry Association, which represents 1,000 telecom companies, to Congress, the White House and the presidential campaigns: "We're facing a staggering workforce shortage because there aren't enough highly skilled people to go around."

Although Congress approved 115,000 H-1B visas for this year, they were exhausted by early March. Without the new legislation - which would raise the number to 200,000 - the AEA argues that U.S. high-tech firms will be placed at a "major competitive disadvantage relative to their European competitors."

In addition, many IT organizations have cried foul over the Truthfulness, Responsibility and Accountability in Contracting Act, designed to force federal agencies to more effectively track outsourcing costs and savings and for competition between government and the private sector.

Supporters say the measure will protect government jobs and save taxpayer dollars, but critics say it will halt outsourcing and waste taxpayer money.

But that measure, and others, may fall victim to lack of time on the lawmakers' agenda. If so, they'll almost certainly be back on the legislative agenda when the 107th Congress convenes in January.

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