COMMENTARY

A Simpson-Bowles panel for government IT?

With all the campaign rhetoric blowing in opposite directions this political season, it’s sometimes difficult to judge the true impact of either candidate’s position on government information technology policies. Even in the area of IT, either side is often diametrically opposed to the other.

In matters of IT, “the current Administration has been frozen in the past,” charges the Republican Party platform, which criticized the Obama administration for not auctioning spectrum, providing insufficient tech tax credits, and “micromanaging telecom as if it were a railroad network.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic platform on IT tilts in an opposing direction, calling for greater use of government where the public interest is at risk. In one clear difference, the Democrats argue that cybersecurity should be enforced through some common regulations, especially where the public safety stakes are high, such as the electric power grid. The Republican position is generally that such rules should be voluntary.

It’s clear one party believes in relaxing regs and getting government out of the way of IT and the other wants to use IT to make the most of government.

The IT industry itself doesn’t seem to be buying either position. According to an August nationwide survey of 300 IT pros by the political pollster John Zogby, two-thirds (64 percent) believe the U.S. is at risk of losing its position as a global IT leader. Yet there was no agreement on policies to right the situation, with 31 percent in favor of IT investment tax incentives and exactly the same number opposed.

"As we gear up for the elections this fall, we're finding that messages from the candidates have yet to resonate with the IT sector and the challenges and opportunities before the industry," said Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of CompTIA, which commissioned the survey.

Perhaps the government IT community could use something like a Simpson-Bowles commission to help unite the parties on IT policy. The bi-partisan panel, set up in 2010 to recommend ways to reduce the federal deficit, was headed by two political veterans from opposite sides of the aisle : former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wy.) and former Clinton administration official Erskine Bowles. Both were well-practiced in the art of the deal.

Together they came up with a combination of mutually painful program cuts and tax increases that exceeded their goals by a wide margin. In doing so, they reached what has become the standard for working success, if not political success, of such panels: a high degree of public enthusiasm despite the failure of either party to wholly back their recommendations. (Or even gain support of the full panel. Eleven of he 18 members voted for the plan, but they needed a supermajority of 14 votes for the panel to officially support it.) It touched a political nerve, so much so that the presidential campaigns are still reluctant to answer questions on the topic.

Nevertheless, could the differences that have prolonged the deadlock between the parties on cybersecurity policy be helped along by a public-private panel of experienced and powerful deal-makers committed to compromise?

If so, the often cited “cyber Pearl Harbor” predicted by many might be put off long enough to develop much tougher defenses. If not, it might be because the panelists come up with an agreement too broadly popular for either side to swallow.

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