Don't tap COVID relief for IT modernization funds

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As House leadership continues to refuse to compromise on COVID-19 relief legislation with the Senate, despite agreement on many elements of a package including an extension of the Paycheck Protection Program for ailing small businesses, evidence continues to mount in favor of the Senate's outright rejection of the $3 trillion HEROES Act that passed the House on May 15, 2020.

The fiscal year 2020 budget deficit is estimated to be $3.3 trillion. The HEROES Act would double that amount. The legislation includes $915 billion for a state and local government bailout, even though 23 states have spent less than 10% of the $150 billion provided to them in the CARES Act. While that is the most egregious provision of the HEROES Act, there are many others, including some that are completely unrelated to the pandemic and would be wasteful under any circumstances. Among these is a provision to provide $1 billion for the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF), which was created in 2017 by the Modernizing Government Technology Act (MGT Act) as a revolving capital fund to help to help modernize the government's antiquated information technology systems.

The program has been an abysmal failure. An August 2019 Government Accountability Office report reviewed the use of the TMF and found that while the General Services Administration had obligated about $1.2 million to cover TMF operating expenses, the agency had recovered only about 3% of those expenses through fee payments. According to the TMF program website, only seven agencies with 10 distinct projects, including GSA, have taken advantage of the program. Agencies are required to repay the fund for these projects within five years.

More on IT Modernization

FCW's IT Modernization Summit takes place Oct. 6. Click here to see the full agenda and register for this online event.

For a different take on the Technology Modernization Fund, see this Sept. 24 commentary from Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.).

Congress seems to be in agreement that the program is not effective, rejecting a budget request of $150 million for FY 2020 and $228 million in FY 2019 and appropriating $25 million for each of those fiscal years to fund the program. For FY 2021, the Office of Management and Budget has requested $150 million to fund the program, an amount that is likely to suffer a similar fate to the preceding requests.

But even those amounts are far short of the $1 billion that was included in the HEROES Act for the TMF program to provide for government modernization activities to "prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus." This makes no sense on its face, and even the sponsor of the proposed $1 billion, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), has made it clear that this high spending has nothing to do with preparing for the coronavirus and everything to do with modernizing federal IT.

He stated in May that the increase in TMF funding, "will incentivize agencies to make the necessary upgrades and investments we're seeking and to retire those legacy systems that are cyber insecure, very inefficient, high cost, and really slow down agencies' ability to fulfill their missions." Connolly has turned out to be a bad witness for his own cause.

On Aug. 30, 2020, Connolly bemoaned the fact that the Senate had not acted to provide this additional funding for the TMF program by passing the HEROES Act. However, since TMF funding involves a complex application and board approval, it is unclear how the fund could go from spending less than $50 million across 10 projects over a three-year period to pushing out $1 billion in obligations for IT modernization. As such, dumping the proposed $1 billion into the fund will likely not make a dent in federal IT modernization efforts and has absolutely nothing to do with coronavirus relief.

Helping the nation get back to normal is taking longer than anyone wanted or expected. All taxpayer money spent on the response to the pandemic should be targeted and temporary, with significant transparency and accountability, as Citizens Against Government Waste proposed in its 10 principles on April 1, 2020.

It is well past time for Congress to stop playing politics with peoples' lives and get serious about helping those most affected by the pandemic. The Senate should continue to stand up against wasteful spending in the HEROES Act, including the $1 billion for the TMF fund.

About the Author

Debora Collier is vice president of policy and government affairs at Citizens Against Government Waste.


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