Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said today that the $1 billion funding increase for the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) included in the slimmed down HEROES Act pandemic relief legislation is probably not big enough to spur Federal agencies to undertake widespread IT modernization, but agreed that winning approval for the huge funding increase would be a good first step.

Speaking at an online event organized by FCW, Rep. Connolly noted that regular Fiscal Year 2021 appropriations legislation proposes only $25 million of new funding for TMF – in line with the last couple annual funding cycles. TMF provides funding to Federal agencies to modernize IT operations but also requires agencies to repay borrowings through savings yielded by the modernization projects.

Rep. Connolly said a new injection of $25 million into TMF “isn’t going to do much to incentivize too many Federal agencies” to make a big leap forward with modernization projects.

And he said the proposed $1 billion TMF funding increase “frankly is not going to be enough either,” but added, “we will settle for our billion now.”

“We have to have enough money to incentivize agencies” to undertake very large modernization projects, he said, adding, “it’s going to take several years” of sustained, major investments to realize the benefits of those investments. Part of the enduring problem in Congress, he said, is a view that top-notch IT is something that is “nice to have,” rather than a necessity.

“We have to see IT as integral to the mission … we still have to adopt that at the Federal level,” said Rep. Connolly, who chairs the House Government Operations Subcommittee.

Rep. Connolly declined to handicap the odds of the $1 billion TMF increase surviving in any final approval of the HEROES Act. According to numerous reports, that bill and other aspects of relief funding are currently being negotiated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

“Those are very closely-held negotiations, where there are essentially two principals,” the congressman said. “But we have made the case … You can’t ignore the IT investment portfolio, and you have to pay attention to that if you want these programs to work.” He added, “I think we have made some progress with respect to that.”

Telework Prospects

Elsewhere on the legislative front, Rep. Connolly said he believes the Federal government “has to be prepared for the long haul” with the coronavirus pandemic, and that enabling telework is essential to that preparation.

He said President Trump’s COVID-19 infection, and the outbreak of the virus among staffers and recent attendees of events at the White House, is “just a reminder that we are nowhere near close to getting a handle on this virus.”

Rep. Connolly – long a supporter of expanded telework options for Federal employees, said that an “overwhelming majority” of the Federal workforce qualify for telework, and that it should be an option ready and available for the government to employ.

The congressman is sponsoring legislation that would direct agencies to attain certain telework percentages, and he said that most of the data about telework shows that it helps with employee morale, and the government’s ability to recruit new talent to the workforce. Asked about the odds of that legislation gaining approval this year, Connolly replied, “If we don’t do it in this session, I am going to push it in the next congress.”

“I have reason to believe that the next congress will be friendlier” to the legislation, he added.

Congress Shares Blame

Rep. Connolly said “we have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly” in Federal IT since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

He singled out the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) for showing cracks in their IT systems due to unexpectedly high pandemic-driven workloads, and related expansion of missions. But rather than laying blame on those agencies in particular, he said that Congress deserves to own its share of the problem by having not appropriated enough funding over the years for IT modernization.

With the IRS in particular, Rep. Connolly cited difficulties that the agency had this year in distributing stimulus funding to citizens, especially to those for which the agency did not already have direct deposit information.

“IRS was not up to the job because its IT systems had languished” due to insufficient funding from Congress, he said. “A lot of it has to do with the deliberate decision to disinvest in IRS … we are paying the price for that.”

In the case of SBA, he said the agency in a normal year was set up to disburse $20 billion of loans, but that it’s workload in distributing Paycheck Protection Program money represented a 30-fold increase in funding processing, and some agency systems “could not process the huge demand that was created.”

Problems in distributing unemployment relief funding were even more persistent at the state level, he said, because many state systems run on older infrastructure, and over the years have been “deliberately starved” of funding to upgrade their IT. “As a result, they couldn’t handle” increased volumes of payments, Rep. Connolly said. “This was a real emergency, and our state unemployment insurance systems at best had a very spotty record because of their IT systems … they were not up to the job.”

Read More About
More Topics
John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.