Mikulski pushes for plum for Villa Julie in budget

November 25, 1994|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Senate Report 103-318 is a bland-looking document, 322 pages that spell out budget details for several federal agencies, including the Social Security Administration.

Open to Page 150, though, and you will find a classic case of

what some people refer to as congressional pork and what others describe as taking care of constituents. It is an effort, thus far unsuccessful, by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski to get Social Security to build a $10 million computer training center for its employees at Villa Julie College in Green Spring Valley -- something the federal agency doesn't want.

In language added at the Maryland Democrat's behest, the Appropriations Committee says Social Security should strengthen its computer training of employees. It "recommends" that the agency spend up to $10 million to build "an offsite computer laboratory/classroom facility . . . at [a] private not-for-profit institution of higher education that has an established record of hands-on computer training and has developed curriculum in that regard."

"The lab shall be within 10 miles of SSA headquarters," it states.

The report is not so crass as to name an institution, but in language typical of congressional efforts on behalf of special interests, it includes a detailed description of the institution that leaves little doubt about its identity.

Although the report says the award should be made on a nTC "competitive basis," those close to the effort understand that Villa Julie is the intended beneficiary, a fact that Mikulski staff members readily acknowledge. The senator, who returned Tuesday from a 12-day trip to Asia, was not available for comment.

"The bottom line is that it was a good deal for the taxpayers," said George Leventhal, Ms. Mikulski's legislative director. "It would improve Social Security's information processing, and they would be able to do more with less."

Said another Mikulski aide: "It's an excellent school that is addressing a key underrepresented group -- women getting a real opportunity to move into the marketplace."

With Social Security in the midst of a $1.1 billion computer upgrade that includes buying at least 66,000 new terminals, Ms. Mikulski, a member of the Appropriations Committee, has been trying for nearly three years to force the agency to establish a training site in conjunction with Villa Julie.

The effort began in 1992 when Villa Julie opened what it describes as a center "for state-of-the-art training in information systems technology" in rented office space on Reisterstown Road near the Baltimore Beltway.

That same year, the Senate Appropriations Committee told Social Security "to explore . . . the feasibility of establishing a partnership with a not-for-profit educational entity to foster hands-on employee training in the area of state-of-the art computer information systems."

After Social Security rejected the idea, the committee tried again in 1993, adding that the institution should be "within close proximity to SSA headquarters." Again, Social Security resisted.

This year, the committee was more explicit, urging the agency to spend $10 million on construction.

Social Security still doesn't like the idea.

The agency, which already has a computer training center at its headquarters, told Congress this year that the cost of establishing a new one off-site -- if the space were rented -- would be at least $2 million.

It also said that it has hired Villa Julie as well as other colleges and private firms to train employees and that Villa Julie is more expensive than the others.

"Do I think we need to spend $10 million in these times to build a training center anywhere?" Renato A. DiPentima, the Social Security official in charge of computer operations, asked rhetorically in a recent interview. "No."

If Social Security resistance were not enough, the House has also taken a dim view of the proposal. When House and Senate members met this year to resolve differences over the budget, Ms. Mikulski's language was dropped in favor of a statement that the agency should "expand opportunities for computer training in the most cost-effective manner."

Villa Julie officials say the idea is dead. Although the Mikulski effort could continue next year, its chances are dimmed by the Republican takeover of the Senate, which has lessened her influence, and by increased pressure to balance the budget.

Nevertheless, the effort is an illustration of Ms. Mikulski's use of her clout to help an old friend.

Said a former Mikulski aide: "She does love Villa Julie. She has always loved them. There has always been a very warm and very close relationship" rooted in the senator's admiration for small women's colleges and Villa Julie's emphasis on programs for women.

Ms. Mikulski was the college's commencement speaker in the spring and received an honorary degree less than two months before the Appropriations Committee dangled $10 million in front of Villa Julie.

And, three months after that speech, Congress gave Villa Julie $1.45 million from the federal housing budget for "a state-of-the-art computer training program, including construction, other capital activities, equipment and outfitting for technology training center." Ms. Mikulski heads the Senate subcommittee that handles the Housing and Urban Development budget.

The effort to get $10 million went through another subcommittee.

Ms. Mikulski is not the only Marylander on Capitol Hill who has tried to use Social Security to help Villa Julie. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin wrote to the agency within a month of each other at the beginning of 1994 to urge use of Villa Julie's personnel for training.

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