National labs' FITARA exemption nixed in Senate funding bill

The Senate bill appropriating fiscal 2017 funds for the Energy Department does not renew a controversial provision that exempted the national labs from Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act rules.

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The Energy Department's national laboratories will likely lose their exemption to procurement rules in the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act after just one year.

The Senate's fiscal 2017 energy and water development appropriations bill would not renew a provision from last year's funding bill that allowed the national labs to conduct IT procurement without the involvement of DOE's CIO. The bill passed out of committee on April 14 and has headed to the full Senate.

Under FITARA's enhanced CIO authorities, Cabinet-level IT chiefs typically have budget authority and some influence over hiring when it comes to the activities of their bureaus and agencies.

The labs and its contractors had sought the exemption because they believed their supercomputing programs should not be treated like garden-variety IT. They had a well-placed advocate on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"Our national laboratories are building the fastest research supercomputers in the world and developing next-generation exascale machines," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee's Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, told FCW in June 2015. "One-size-fits-all models don't work well, and I am concerned that this well-intentioned law could make it more difficult to develop the technology we need to support the Department of Energy's research and national security missions."

Last year, the Obama administration sought to block the labs' exemption.

In a June 2, 2015, letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Director of the Office of Management and Budget Shaun Donovan called the exemption "highly problematic." He wrote that, if passed, the provision would "eliminate the administration's ability to ensure information technology resources effectively support the department's mission by reducing duplicative IT systems, implementing a comprehensive cybersecurity solution and addressing other IT management issues that support the president's goal to deliver a government that is more effective, efficient and accountable."

Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator Anne Rung echoed that sentiment during a House hearing that same month, saying, "It's our viewpoint that FITARA is a tremendous management tool for the agencies, and we are not carving out the Department of Energy labs."

In its budget request for fiscal 2017, the Obama administration advocated a rescission of the language that authorized the exemption.

Although the White House appears to have won the fight, there is a catch: If the government is funded on the basis of a continuing resolution for 2017, rather than by new appropriations bills, the exemption will likely remain in force. Given that the appropriations process for fiscal 2017 is taking place against the backdrop of a presidential election, a continuing resolution is a strong possibility.

The Senate's bill would appropriate $37.5 billion for energy and water development, a $355 million increase from fiscal 2016 and $261 million above the president's budget request. Much of the increase is on the defense and cybersecurity side of operations, however; civilian funding is set to go down in the Senate bill.

The House version of the bill contains no FITARA exemption for the labs.

The White House released a statement on April 20 urging Congress to fully fund its fiscal 2017 budget request for energy and water development. Among other concerns, administration officials want financial support for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to implement the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act and for DOE and NRC to develop a digital services team.