Negotiations between congressional offices on President Biden’s proposal for a $9 billion funding increase for the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) angled toward a compromise in the range of $5 to $6 billion of new funding before senators moved to drop the funding measure altogether from their consideration of the White House’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill.

That’s the news today from Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who chairs the House Government Operations Subcommittee and is one of the leading proponents in Congress for using TMF funding to spur Federal government IT modernization.

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The congressman also revealed that opposition to the big TMF funding boost came from elected officials from both parties, although he did not identify any opponents by name.

In the aftermath of senators dropping the TMF funding item from their consideration of the relief bill through the budget reconciliation process, Rep. Connolly blamed that development in part on a general lack of understanding among some legislators of the importance of improving Federal IT operations – especially to deliver further virus relief assistance. And he said it was up to legislators and the IT community to redouble efforts to provide better education and understanding on that point.

Rep. Connolly provided the behind-the-scenes look at the TMF funding battle at today’s Resiliency Colloquium event organized by MeriTalk, ACT-IAC, and the Partnership for Public Service.

Inside the TMF Negotiations

In recognition of the importance of improving Federal IT capabilities, Rep. Connolly said, “to their enormous credit, the Biden administration went big, and said we need $9 billion” in TMF funding – along with possible loosening of existing repayment terms – to fund work towards that larger goal. “When I saw the number of $9 billion … I thought Holy Hallelujah … we’ve arrived,” he said.

According to Rep. Connolly, members of the House were “happy with that, we certainly would have approved it.”

While objections to the $9 billion figure first surfaced in the Senate, “we provided lots of data to show what it was going to be used for and why it was so important,” he said.

According to Rep. Connolly, we “had reached kind of a consensus agreement of about $5 or $6 billion, and I privately thought, well, of course I’d preferred nine, but I can live with five or six [billion] because that’s better than the $25 million” in annual appropriations that TMF has received in each of the past three fiscal years.

“But the Senate in its great wisdom started arguing ‘what is that for, that seems like a slush fund, how is that related directly to COVID,” he said, leading the Senate to eliminate the TMF funding provision from the relief bill entirely.

“This is such an opaque process … it’s very hard to finger who did it,” the congressman said. “But somewhere in the dead of night on the Senate side, that number got killed, it just went down to zero. I just think that’s a huge dereliction on the part of the Senate.”

“I can only describe it, not to malign intent, but to a lack of understanding of why these investments are so important,” he said. “I think it got dismissed as ‘well, that’s tangential to the mission,’ and that’s why in my remarks today I try to make the case that … it’s integral to the mission. Without smart IT investments, your mission will not succeed.”

“You would think they’re living on a different planet,” Rep. Connolly said of Senate opposition. “How do you not see the dysfunctionality of many of the programs and agencies we’re dealing with to provide benefits to the American people and their relationship to their IT capability,” he asked.

“Therefore, logic says invest in that to improve that, to make it more efficient, and to shore up the mission. That is the bottom line we’re trying to seek here,” he said.

The congressman also complained about the relative size of the TMF funding request in the context of the current relief bill which totals $1.9 trillion, and the $918 billion relief measure approved by Congress in December. “$9 billion in that context is very little,” he said. “This is an investment that needs to be made, and frankly, no one is going to notice in the grand scheme of things. It’s not going to somehow break the bank.”

“It’s a very short-sighted decision,” Rep. Connolly said of the Senate move. “I am, frankly, just disheartened by it.”

Further Education

The congressman offered no specific next steps in the process, other than to say “this is another example of the educational process we need to undertake with my colleagues in the Congress – especially the other body – about just how integral and important these investments are, and that the whole mission can fail if you don’t make those investments.”

“So our work is cut out for us,” he said. “I think the pandemic has exposed the centrality of IT investments, and IT working to allow us to work, to be safe, to function, to have continuity of operations, and to undertake new missions swiftly and efficiently and effectively, or not. That’s the task in front of us.”

Need to Speed Relief Efforts

Rep. Connolly said the dire need to improve Federal IT capabilities for citizen service had been clearly demonstrated when some agencies were overwhelmed by the flood of outsized aid-distribution requirements in relief bills enacted in 2020.

Without criticizing agency leaders, he cited efforts by the Small Business Administration (SBA) to quickly distribute hundreds of billions of dollars of emergency loans, and the Internal Revenue Service in its efforts to pay out relief to individuals. Efforts by both agencies, he said, were hampered by IT systems that were unable to stand the extra strain put on them by the relief measures. In particular, he pointed out that SBA’s normal annual loan portfolio totaled $20 billion, while the initial relief bills directed $400 billion of loan processing within a month.

“The pandemic has underscored, I think in a very dramatic way, how integral information technology is to the enterprise … and government services,” he said.

“When the pandemic began, the response we crafted in Congress for unemployment insurance, public health, and shoring up direct payments to Americans … were predicated on moving swiftly,” he said. “All of that assumes that you’ve got a functional, efficient IT system, and that was a false assumption.”

Further, Rep. Connolly faulted Trump administration policies on telework and other policies for creating “chaos” in the first couple months of the pandemic last year “because we didn’t have the technology in place and all of the policies related to that technology to suddenly and seamlessly move to a remote working environment.”

“That was a huge handicap that affected peoples’ health and safety, and also the functionality of the Federal government at precisely the time when we needed government to be running on all eight cylinders,” he said.

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