Freshman Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, has made a name for himself as the first chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on IT, diving into issues like encryption and championing legislation on IT modernization. But in a few short weeks, the House could lose Hurd — one of few representatives with real experience and interest in tech policy — in a grueling fight for re-election.
Hurd is looking to maintain the seat he won in 2014 by a narrow majority over Democrat Pete Gallego, who is also his current challenger.
He’s also one of few in Congress well-versed enough in technology’s toughest issues to develop meaningful legislation around it, members of the technology community and other tech-savvy lawmakers told FedScoop.
If Hurd wasn’t re-elected, Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, said in an interview with FedScoop, “we would lose an expert in technology who has an appreciation of cybersecurity more than anybody else here.”
San Antonio’s Hurd came to Congress as one of few representatives with a computer science degree. He also had experience serving as an undercover officer in the CIA for nearly a decade, before founding a cybersecurity firm.
“There are only a handful of congressmen that understand tech — and he’s one of them,” said Farenthold, the vice chair of the IT subcommittee. “He hit the ground running faster than almost any freshman I’ve seen in… my short six-year tenure in Congress.”
While IT policy might not seem like a “sexy” topic to sell to voters, Hurd told FedScoop he gets quite a few questions on IT from his constituents — one at each of the 400 events he has done in the past 21 months in the counties he represents, in fact.
“What people are shocked by is that not once on the campaign trail did I ever say the words ‘IT procurement,’ but the reality is since I’ve been elected I talk about it at every stop,” Hurd said.
“Because when people hear that the federal government spends $80 billion a year on IT procurement and 80 percent of that is on legacy systems they’re immediately outraged,” he said. “And the when we talk to them about, ‘Here’s what I’m doing about this, here’s what I’m doing to try to fix this and to make your government more efficient, to make your government better at protecting their digital infrastructure, and ultimately being a better steward of your taxpayer dollars,’ everybody starts shaking their heads and saying, ‘I get that.’”
IT modernization has been one of Hurd’s major focuses. The House recently passed a bill he co-authored that would authorize agencies to develop IT working capital funds and create a centralized IT modernization fund housed in the Treasury Department that executive branch agencies could apply to draw from.
[Read more: IT Modernization bill passes house unanimously]
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who notably helped pen the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act passed in 2014, co-authored the bill with Hurd.
“Deservedly, Congress gets dinged on for not being able to get anything done,” Connolly said on the House floor before the bill was passed. “But the fact of the matter is, kind of below the surface, lots of things can and do get done with leadership and collaboration and partnership. And Mr. Hurd epitomizes that.”
Connolly said in an interview with FedScoop that Hurd has been “a very effective partner in trying to elevate federal IT issues.”
“I’ll stress our politics are quite different. But in this sector, in this set of issues, there’s no daylight between us,” he said.
Connolly wouldn’t comment directly on Hurd’s re-election odds or his work in that context, but he did say it is difficult to find people in Congress who know or care about these issues.
“He brings a lot of personal expertise that is not very common in the Congress,” Connolly said.
When asked if it was hard to find legislators knowledgeable about tech policy, Farenthold quipped, “I bet I could find a couple of members of Congress who wouldn’t know the difference between a computer mouse and a rat.”
As for legislative interest in technical issues, he said “in the cybersecurity field, everybody realizes that there’s a threat… I think IT modernization is something that you see some people’s eyes glass over when you start to talk about.”
Hurd has been “pleasantly surprised” by how many legislators recognize the issues, saying that many are willing to admit their lack of knowledge on a particular subject.
But he noted there are times when “legislators are talking past the private sector or even the technical people within the government because there’s not a granular understanding.”
“That’s why folks like me are in Congress, to work on these issues and to help provide leadership for my colleagues and the body at large on these important issues,” he said.
Hurd also noted one of the challenges he has been dealing with is that “people feel like they can throw a lot of numbers at you and try to get your eyes to roll back in your head.”
“But the reality is, I have some experience in these topics,” Hurd said. “And so I understand when they’re trying to use a technical language to confuse you — I know what they’re talking about.”
One of the biggest problems Hurd identified in the IT space is “the inertia within the executive branch to do things the way they’ve always been done.”
He said he’s also concerned by a trend in solicitations for IT acquisitions to not only identify a problem but also describe the solution, a problem others have flagged in the IT space.
Doing that, Hurd noted, “prevents the proverbial two guys or two gals in the garage to solve a problem in a creative way because the solution is already articulated in those responses.”
So far Hurd has had five bills signed into law, which his office said is the most by a freshman legislator during his term. Only two congressional legislators have had more bills signed into law this Congress, according to Hurd’s office.
“Part of that is because we’re focused on building consensus with our colleagues,” Hurd said. “Bake a cake before you serve it.”
Andy Halataei, Information Technology Industry Council senior vice president for government affairs, told FedScoop, “It’s really remarkable to see a new member come in and understand tech issues and to be able to move the ball on so many issues so quickly… The tech industry has been really impressed with how effective he’s been over the last two years.”
When it comes to how the government acquires technology and replacing legacy systems, Halataei said, Hurd has “been a real leader on that issue, and I think his work has really caught the attention of the tech community.”
Halataei noted there are many members interested in tech policy, “but you can always use more friends who understand how your industry works.”
He added that Hurd is “probably one of the most up-to-speed members on cyber policy in the Congress.”
It’s clear the technology industry has noticed Hurd’s work, as their PACs are donating money to his campaign. For example, the Consumer Technology Association PAC has contributed $10,000 in donations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Trey Hodgkins, IT Alliance for Public Sector senior vice president for the public sector, also lavished praise on Hurd’s IT modernization efforts in a statement, noting that “simply put, [Hurd] gets technology.”
And Professional Services Council’s Executive Vice President of Operations and Technology Dave Wennergren told FedScoop Hurd “stepped up” as a freshman, and tackled IT and cyber issues “that maybe some other members struggled to wrap their heads around.”
“I think it demonstrated the power of having somebody who is tech-savvy advocating on the important technology issues that affect our government,” Wennergren said. “And boy there are a lot of them.”
From the outset, Hurd said his subcommittee has been focused on cybersecurity, privacy, emerging technology and IT procurement.
“When we laid that out at the beginning of this Congress, we looked, we took several months to try to understand what some of the big problems were in each one of those, and how we could address each one,” Hurd said. “And ultimately, the [Modernizing Government Technology Act] bill is kind of a culmination of a lot of hearings, a lot of research, a lot of meetings, a lot of conversations on one of those four major planks that we’ve been focused on.”
If Hurd is re-elected, he said he wants to tackle next the “idea of a cyber National Guard,” where people would get a scholarship or their loans repaid in return for service in federal IT. Once those people return to the private sector after that service, Hurd said, their companies would “loan” them back on a regular basis to deal with key issues.
“That’s a really big thing that I think we can actually accomplish,” Hurd said. “And look, there’s still more on the procurement area — when it comes to IT services, making sure that you’re able to get some of these nimble startup companies involved into the government and provide their services.”