FITARA: Son of Clinger-Cohen?

The latest attempt at IT reform echoes the IT Management Reform Act, better known as watch OMB’s reaction carefully.

Alan Balutis larger version

The House recently approved a version of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) as an amendment to the fiscal 2014 National Defense Authorization Act. The $638 billion authorization act was passed on June 14 with a 315-108 vote, and the voting was not simply split along party lines.

FITARA got similar bipartisan support: It was reported out of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in March by voice vote and was sponsored by committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and key minority member Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).

Back in the mid-1990s, a similar bill emerged — the IT Management Reform Act (ITMRA), more commonly known as the Clinger-Cohen Act. It was heralded as one of the most consequential pieces of modern IT and acquisition reform. It, too, passed as an amendment to the NDAA, under the sponsorship of Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) and Rep. William Clinger (R-Pa.).

At this time, no counterpart bill to FITARA exists in the Senate. But only a few days before the House vote, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on reducing duplication and improving results in federal IT. The testimony and the senators’ questions suggested that the upper chamber’s endorsement might be forthcoming.

OMB’s general counsel routinely opposes bills that suggest how the executive branch should be organized.

The vision for ITMRA in 1996 was to grant CIOs more authority, have them to report to the agency’s top leader and give them a seat at the management table, said David Powner, director of IT management issues at the Government Accountability Office.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the Senate committee’s ranking member, asked: “If we’re not going to give CIOs the authority to do what they need to do, why bother even having CIOs?”

So what happens next? Here’s a prediction: The Office of Management and Budget will oppose the FITARA amendment. An early indication has been the lukewarm testimony and negative asides by U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel during a June 11 Senate hearing and in earlier House hearings. For example, VanRoekel testified that “the Clinger-Cohen Act actually begins by saying, ‘The heads of agencies shall….’ It’s very specific about empowering the heads of agencies, the secretary, the deputy secretary, chief of operations, etc., to take ownership for the IT resources and to focus on that.”

So in Pontius Pilate fashion, the man effectively acting as deputy director for management at OMB absolves the management arm of the White House from any responsibility in ensuring that this act of Congress is properly implemented. ITMRA, of course, also goes on to specify the authorities of the CIO, reporting relationships, status as either a political or career employee, and so on. And if there is any doubt about the intent of the legislation, the accompanying report language makes clear what that intent was in terms of how it should have been implemented.

OMB opposed the Clinger-Cohen Act back in the 1990s and negotiated fiercely to water it down and weaken it. Indeed, at the time, OMB succeeded in striking the creation of the job VanRoekel now holds. Why? Because OMB’s general counsel routinely opposes bills that suggest how the executive branch should be organized — whether the restructuring is a good idea or not. But the latest NDAA will be a hard bill to oppose or change, which is presumably why Issa attached FITARA to it.

So the real test might come after enactment, when OMB and major agencies will have to implement the act. That, as I have argued several times before, is where Clinger-Cohen “failed” — a good piece of legislation undercut by poor follow-up.

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