Key IT bills show signs of strength in Congress

Two key IT modernization bills could move in Congress, despite the compressed legislative calendar and the politically charged election year.

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Two key IT modernization bills could see some movement in the legislative process this year as lawmakers move cautiously in a politically charged cycle.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) introduced the Information Technology Modernization Act this month. Based on a White House plan floated in the fiscal 2017 budget request, the bill would create a $3.1 billion revolving fund for upgrading outdated federal IT systems. Hoyer's bill has 18 co-sponsors, and a congressional staffer said that number is likely to grow soon.

On the Senate side, Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) are teaming up to sponsor the Cloud Infrastructure Transition Act. It would give new authority to the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program to speed accreditation of commercial cloud service providers, establish a framework for the federal CIO to set up working capital funds for IT modernization and task agencies with strict reporting requirements designed to expose their reliance on obsolete technology.

The bills are not being developed in parallel, but they share some provisions and objectives, and both could gain more traction this year, particularly the House bill.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who was a lead sponsor and driving force behind the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act, is backing the idea of a revolving fund to modernize government IT. Right now, he's the lone Republican co-sponsor on Hoyer's bill.

"This bill will help modernize the outdated systems plaguing our government to protect taxpayer information, reduce these abuses and help bring our government into the 21st century," Issa said in a statement.

Some lawmakers remain skeptical, however.

"The federal government has spent more than $525 billion on IT, and it doesn't work," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, during an April 20 hearing. "And so I see that the president...needs another $3 billion -- as if $525 billion wasn't enough -- he needs $528 billion in order to actually solve these problems. I have a hard time believing that we're just 3 more billion away from actually solving this."

Supporters are hoping the fund's reimbursement requirements might sweeten the deal for budget hawks. Under the proposed legislation, agencies that draw on modernization funding would have to repay it out of the cost savings they achieve. The goal is for the $3.1 billion in seed funding to eventually support $12 billion in modernization projects over 10 years.

"Instead of appropriating vast sums annually on slow, incremental upgrades, as has been done in the past, this legislation uses a novel approach that has proved successful and cost-effective in the private sector," Hoyer wrote in an op-ed on April 21. "I've been working on this bill with [Federal CIO] Tony Scott, who implemented a similar program when he was chief information officer at Microsoft. It was successful and achieved significant cost savings over the long term."

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the lead Democrat on pushing FITARA through Congress, told FCW that making agencies repay the money over time is a critical component so that the fund will continue to provide resources for future upgrades.

Furthermore, "using the incremental reporting and transparency metrics from FITARA will help ensure limited dollars are going to the highest priority projects and that we're getting the best return on those investments," he said. He added that he is working on a second FITARA scorecard, and initial reports show that agencies are making "steady improvement."

Mike Hettinger, a former top aide to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and now managing principal at the Hettinger Strategy Group, told FCW that it is noteworthy that House leaders are getting involved in a weedy IT bill.

"It's a big step forward," he said. "It's very rare to see leadership take an interest in something as unsexy as federal information technology reform."

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