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Republican Lawmakers Want More Accountability for US CTO Role

US CTO Megan Smith

US CTO Megan Smith // Omidyar Network/AP

This post has been updated. 

Republican members of Congress want to nail down a firmer job description for the U.S. chief technology officer and require the administration’s top technologist to be confirmed by the Senate.

The CTO position, currently held by former Google executive Megan Smith, is situated within the White House Office of Science and Technology. Smith serves as an “assistant to the president,” which does not require Senate vetting.

The U.S. Chief Technology Officer Act, introduced April 14 by Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., would also make it easier for legislators to compel the CTO to testify before Congress. Longstanding White House policy -- across both Republican and Democratic administrations -- is to permit only Senate-confirmed appointees to testify before lawmakers.

In a statement, Loudermilk cited “serious challenges” getting administration officials, including former CTO Todd Park, to testify about the development and troubled launch of HealthCare.gov in part because of that policy.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Space, Science and Technology Committee, and four other members of the science committee have also signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation.

The bill would also codify the federal CTO’s responsibilities directing more attention toward securing federal systems.

The bill directs the CTO to work with the Office of Management and Budget to provide an annual report to Congress on the current state of federal agencies’ information systems, including “security concerns about these information systems,” according to the bill.

In addition, the CTO would be tasked with leading a review of third-party tools embedded on federal websites and the potential effect on cybersecurity and consumer privacy, “including whether each website provides prominent notice to consumers about the presence of the tool and whether the consumer may opt out,” according to the bill language.

The House science committee earlier this year raised the alarm about the profusion of third-party apps embedded on the federal health exchange website that collected some information about users.

The delineation of duties spelled out in the bill would signal a shift in the CTO role. The security of federal information systems has traditionally been the purview of OMB and its Office of E-Government and Information Technology. The head of that office, currently Tony Scott, serves as the federal CIO -- another position that doesn’t require Senate confirmation.

A spokeswoman for the Office of Science and Technology Policy did not immediately respond to Nextgov’s request for comment.

Senate Vote Gives Role 'Oomph'

It’s not the first time lawmakers have sought to tweak the CTO role.

Draft legislation introduced last year by Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., would have significantly boosted the role, giving the CTO the power to review all agency IT projects. The bill was later amended but never came up for a vote.

There's never been much of a legislative underpinning for the CTO role, said Mike Hettinger, a lobbyist for the tech industry and the former long-time Republican staff director of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"I certainly understand the push behind formalizing the role, making sure that it has the necessary authority, and the 'oomph' that comes with Senate confirmation is always a good thing in that respect," he said.

The downside is, of course, that Senate confirmations can drag on and have become increasingly partisan.

Smith, the third CTO to serve in the Obama administration, “focuses on how technology policy, data and innovation can advance the future of our nation,” according to the White House website.

Like her predecessor, Todd Park, she serves as an assistant to the president, which doesn’t require Senate confirmation. However, the administration’s first CTO, Aneesh Chopra, served as an associate director of the White House science office and required a vote of approval from the Senate before starting work in early 2009.

Loudermilk’s bill heads to both the House science committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for consideration.

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