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Washington Wednesday: Technology upgrades, federal protections speed through House floor

CAPITOL HILL – The House of Representatives had a full docket of bills last Wednesday, including measures spearheaded by Maryland Congressmen.

The House considered 14 bills under suspension of the rules, which allows noncontroversial bills to quickly pass through the chamber. Rather than vote on the rule allowing for consideration and then the bill, members vote on a single motion “to suspend the rules and pass the bill.” On May 17, most of those votes were simple voice votes.

The bills passed include a measure to reform the appointment of bankruptcy judges, one to authorize further sanctions on Syria and business entities that have dealings there and a measure to grant federal recognition to certain Native American tribes in Virginia, as well as a bill to expand discrimination protections to federal interns introduced by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.-7) and the Modernizing Government Technology Act (MGT) championed by Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.-5).

The MGT Act contains provisions of another bill Hoyer authored, and he said the bill’s premise – providing for the modernization of federal agencies’ computers and related information technology infrastructure – is part of his Restoring Faith in Government initiative.

“This bill may well have a very great consequence to the efficiency and effectiveness of our federal government,” he said. “It would be a major step toward ensuring that our government is using the latest technology systems, is well-protected from cyber threats and can serve the American people effectively.”

The bill allows agencies to create a working capital fund for use in IT upgrades, as well as creates a similar fund within the department of the treasury to be used by any department at the director’s discretion. The oldest and least efficient and secure systems would be the first to be upgraded. The bill also allows money in the fund to roll over, eliminating the “use it or lose it” provision that representatives believe has hindered modernization. Additionally, savings realized from upgrading expensive-to-maintain legacy systems will be placed into the working capital fund.

Leadership of both political parties spoke strongly in favor of the bill. After Hoyer’s remarks, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.-23) also gave his support, pointing out just how old many federal systems are and the “national security issue” that creates.

“Why in the world would the department of defense use a 54-year-old system as a backup to send and receive emergency messages for our nuclear forces? A 54-year-old system that relies on floppy discs? Why would the master file of the public's taxes at the IRS run on a 1950s code?” McCarthy said. “We’d expect more from the private sector. Why should we expect less from the federal government?”

Representatives pointed out the recent large-scale ransomware attacks in countries across the world demonstrate the need for technology upgrades.

“Last week’s major global cyber attack is yet another reminder of how critical it is that our government’s technology systems are upgraded to the latest and most secure technology,” Hoyer said.

The bill is now in the Senate, where it has been referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. But Hoyer said in his floor remarks that they “do have Senate agreement” already regarding the provisions on the MGT Act.

Hoyer also pointed out that, while the bill creates the technology modernization funds, money must be appropriated into them separately, and urged President Donald Trump to include funds in the fiscal year 2018 budget proposal.

Cummings’ bill, the Federal Intern Protection Act, also passed via voice vote and is working its way through the Senate. The bill would codify that federal interns are entitled to the same protections against discrimination as federal employees. This includes discrimination based on gender, age, religion and race.

Cummings said this bill was a bipartisan effort as well, and arose after the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, of which he is the ranking member, held a hearing where several former interns testified.

“It is surprising that we didn’t already have this protection. Last year, the oversight committee held a hearing in which we heard testimony about sexual harassment and retaliation in an EPA regional office,” Cummings said. “We saw during our hearing that allowing this kind of behavior to go unchecked can have serious consequences in the lives and careers of those who are interested in government service.

“We’re better than that.”

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