Congressional cooperation can bring better government

There are a lot of smart people in the U.S. Congress.

A 2011 study by the Congressional Research Service showed members of the House included 68 educators, 15 medical doctors, five ministers, eight law enforcement officers, one firefighter, seven social workers and 28 people with careers in agriculture. All of them bring expertise and experience to their tasks in the U.S. Capitol.

Too often, that does the American people little good. The increasingly poisonous partisan nature of government in Washington means that people who have common interests – but from different political parties – don’t talk to each other, much less put their heads together. Doing so more often could solve problems, save tax dollars and improve the efficiency of the massive lumbering bureaucracy.

There are some instances of cooperation – one in particular – that could create a great deal of efficiency and savings, if it could become law.

Gerry Connolly and Darrell Issa both serve in the House of Representatives. Connolly is a Democrat from Virginia, and Issa is a Republican from California. Both know something about computer technology, and both agree the way the government purchases IT services is archaic.

One problem both identified is that departments across the government often purchase off-the-shelf programs individually. “We can share what we’re doing in a collaborative way so that software is not redundantly contracted out,” Issa said in an interview.

Connolly said the current procedure “has resulted in duplicative and wasteful IT spending, with taxpayers forced to foot the bill for massive IT program failures that ring up staggeringly high costs, but exhibit astonishingly poor performance.”

The two legislators have co-sponsored the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act. The bill would make it easier to coordinate open source purchasing and encourage the use of open source programs whenever possible.

Connolly said a key is for the government to see itself as one entity instead of a collection of disparate organizations. “Once you define us as (a single organization), what we’re really saying is that we can share,” he said.

In addition to streamlining purchasing, FITARA would bring the way technology is used in government into the 21st century. FITARA’s formulation followed the creation of the website with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. The clunky computer system became one facet of criticism in the much criticized ACA healthcare program, but it also showed the antediluvian nature of IT purchases and planning at the federal level.

The first version of FITARA was adopted by the House last year. An amended version was approved in May. It has yet to be approved by the Senate, a necessary step before FITARA could go to Pres. Obama’s desk and become law.

FITARA and its potential impact on IT comprise only one of many possibilities for improvement if all those well-educated, experienced legislators would brainstorm and look for options that might make an improvement, regardless of their political affiliation.

Georgia has been blessed to have two forward-thinking U.S. senators, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson. Both have reached across the aisle.

In February, Isakson, a Republican, and Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, spoke jointly in Atlanta about their efforts to bridge the partisan gap in Washington and reform the federal budgeting process. Chambliss decided not to run for re-election this year – citing the increasingly sharp political divisions in Washington.

It is clear. What we need is more conversations across the aisle that are aimed at good government – for us all.

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