Protocol | Policy

Stimulus bill injects $1 billion into government IT

The cash infusion into the Technology Modernization Fund falls short of Biden's $9 billion promise, but it's still unprecedented.

Stimulus bill injects $1 billion into government IT
The $1 billion is one provision in the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill.

On Wednesday, Congress voted to give $1 billion to the Technology Modernization Fund, an unprecedented cash infusion that will go a long way toward modernizing the government's rickety technology systems. But supporters of government modernization say they're still about $8 billion short of what they really need.

The fight to keep TMF funding in the final version of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package has been hard-fought — the result of aggressive lobbying efforts by the tech industry's major trade groups as well as advocacy from Bidenworld players like National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

"The administration, including the [National Security Council] and NSA Sullivan, believe we need to fund the federal government's cybersecurity priorities and modernization needs," a White House official told Protocol.

But while $1 billion is a transformative sum, it's still a bit of a letdown to supporters of the TMF. The Biden administration had originally pushed for $9 billion in spending, a revolutionary amount of money for the TMF that could have fundamentally altered how the government funds technology efforts, enabling government-wide efforts to move applications to the cloud or track federal workers' identities.

Matthew Cornelius, the executive director of the Alliance for Digital Innovation, said it's "unfortunate" that the full $9 billion ultimately wasn't included. But $1 billion still amounts to "the biggest investment in centralized IT modernization in probably a decade," he said. Cornelius's group counts Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and Salesforce among its members, and they all stand to make a lot of money as the government improves its remote work capabilities during the pandemic.

The tech industry and IT wonks on Capitol Hill were alarmed when the House passed a version of the American Rescue Plan without any money for the TMF on March 2, according to two lobbyists and two congressional aides. House leadership stripped the $9 billion provision from the bill due to opposition from Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who insisted that the money was unrelated to COVID relief efforts. (Sinema's office did not respond to a request for comment.) The marching orders were clear: The House version was supposed to hew as closely to the Senate's as possible, according to one House aide.

Lobbyists and aides in both chambers immediately began to point fingers: It was the fault of Biden's Office of Management and Budget, which didn't make the case for the money forcefully enough. Or it was House leadership, which didn't seem willing to fight for the money. Or it was Sinema, whose office did not seem to understand the arguments for including government tech funding in a COVID bill.

A coalition of tech trade associations and the Chamber of Commerce, as well as senators including Sen. Gary Peters and other longtime advocates for federal IT, immediately began to push members of the Senate to increase support for the funding. Two aides said Sullivan and representatives for the National Security Agency made it clear to lawmakers that they believed the funding was a matter of national security.

The TMF's supporters focused on two major arguments for its inclusion: First, the government needs to figure out how to go remote, and fast, as Biden's administration begins to fill up without any immediate plans to get the federal workforce back to the office. And second, in the words of one tech industry official, it came down to one word: SolarWinds.

"A lot of policymakers are focused on SolarWinds — particularly so, those who have an interest in federal technology," said Jon Pawlow, senior director of government affairs at the Information Technology Industry Council. "We want to make sure that we're able to recover from the COVID pandemic, but are also encouraged by the fact that these resources will help to not just modernize federal IT, but better secure against cyberthreats."

Ultimately, the Senate agreed to include the $1 billion for the TMF in the version that passed last week.

Supporters of the TMF said it's ironic that $1 billion is somewhat disappointing. "If you would've told us a year ago we would've gotten $1 billion for the TMF, we'd call that transformative," the House aide said.

Craig Albright, the vice president for legislative strategy at BSA, also known as The Software Alliance, said the fund will "unlock some of the changes that are sorely needed." He said the funding will be a "massive improvement for the federal government."

There's a huge difference between what the TMF could do with $9 billion versus what it will do with $1 billion. It's the difference between fixing technical problems at individual agencies and revamping how the entire government processes information. But it's likely that supporters of the TMF will point to the projects that it funds through the American Rescue Plan to make a case for future investments. The Biden administration has made it clear that modernizing the government's technology infrastructure will be a key priority moving forward.

"Whether it's $1B or $9B, it is just a start," the White House official said. "We look forward to building on this investment and demonstrating the value of the TMF model."

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