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Lawmakers Hopeful FITARA Finish Line In Sight

House Oversight Committee member Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va.

House Oversight Committee member Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va. // J. Scott Applewhite/AP

A bill to overhaul the way the federal government purchases IT systems, in part, by beefing up the authority of agency chief information officers is inching closer to passage.

Architects of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act -- or FITARA -- are increasingly hopeful the legislation will be wrapped up in the yearend, “must-pass” bill setting policy for the Defense Department.

"We're holding out hope that the Senate will include FITARA in their version of the Defense Authorization Act,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., one of the authors of FITARA, told Nextgov on Thursday in a brief interview after a speech in Washington on big data. “That's the key, and we're really close."

The FITARA legislation -- originally sponsored by Connolly and Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and first introduced in spring 2013 -- aims to upgrade the government’s creaky process for purchasing and building IT systems.

The House voted in May to attach the IT reform bill to the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act.

Still, it’s not the first time IT reform has appeared this close to passage. Last year, in the wake of the disastrous launch of HealthCare.gov, FITARA backers pushed to include the legislation in the annual DOD bill -- only to see it stripped from the final version.

"It's a little bit deja vu all over again, because we were really close a year ago, too, in the lame duck,” Connolly said. “But this is kind of a do-or-die moment for the Senate, and we think we've made a lot of progress over the ensuing year in helping our colleagues in the other body understand why this is so badly needed."

At this time last year, the Senate hadn’t yet taken up FITARA and the move to include it in the Defense bill stalled out in the discussion phase, according to Hill aides.

This time around, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has a bill of its own. The committee approved a pared-down version of FITARA in June.

In addition, agreement on the core pieces of the legislation between committee stakeholders across both chambers is solid, according to Hill staffers.

Items such as empowering agency CIOs, requiring agencies to meet steep savings from closing and consolidating data centers, and improving the quality of IT spending data via “dashboards” are supported by both Connolly and Issa on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and their Senate counterparts, Tom Carper, D-Del., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

However, it’s uncertain what provisions of the original House bill -- such as creating a collaborative center to advise agencies on IT procurement -- might be left on the cutting-room floor of a Defense bill compromise.

"It's very much in progress, and it would be premature to say,” Connolly said, adding, "Having helped write the legislation, I'd be loath to say that some of it is less important than others.”

For now, the sense on Capitol Hill is that the final version of FITARA will more likely resemble the one adopted by the Senate committee this summer.

Still, sticking points remain even there, including how changes to CIO authority would play out in DOD.

In the Senate, Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of that chamber’s Armed Services Committee, abstained from approving the Senate committee’s IT overhaul, fearing it would conflict with a separate measure he’s championing that would combine DOD’s CIO position with that of chief management officer.

The federal government spends some $80 billion a year on IT, as much as $20 billion of that on outdated or inefficient legacy systems, Connolly said.

“In technology years, we're light-years behind,” Connolly said during his speech at the Nov. 13 Nextgov event. “Congress has really fallen down on the job here …  We haven't passed an information technology procurement bill in the last 20 years.”

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