What the midterm results mean for federal IT leaders
While control of Congress following Tuesday’s midterm elections is likely to remain unsettled for several more days, Republicans are still poised to take over the House of Representatives, setting up many confrontations with the Biden administration over the next two years.
Speaking with FedScoop, senior members of the federal tech policy community explained what this could mean for day-to-day operations at the IT departments of government agencies, and outlined key issues C-suite leaders will have to face during the 118th Congress:
- Increased oversight of IT and cybersecurity spending at federal agencies including the IRS, DHS and FTC
- The departure of lawmakers and federal C-suite executives with IT expertise
- Strong resistance to spending on disinformation programs that Republican lawmakers view as potentially curtailing free speech
- Heightened focus on agency record-keeping
Federal agency leaders can expect increased oversight from Republican lawmakers as they ramp up opposition to the administration’s agenda. In particular, chief information officers and other senior officials with direct responsibility for IT project management should expect more frequent calls to attend congressional hearings and respond to questioning from lawmakers.
Scrutiny of the federal agencies that have substantial funding increases including the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Homeland Security, Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission is likely to be especially in-depth and potentially hostile.
As one federal IT policy expert told FedScoop: “The Republicans in the House are super-focused on oversight, and of the federal agencies, IRS is likely at the top of the list. They are not thrilled with the $80 billion allocated to the agency as part of the [Inflation Reduction Act].”
Another IT policy expert agreed with this characterization and said the IRS would need to be ready “to make the case that investment in IT services is going to streamline and improve services for citizens.”
Republicans in both the House and Senate have expressed staunch opposition to the $80 billion the IRS received from the Inflation Reduction Act, of which $4.8 billion is allocated for revamping the agency’s antiquated IT and cybersecurity systems.
A September letter from Republican senators to outgoing IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig sounded the alarm over “speculative return-on-investment” estimates from the IRS and Treasury Department over IT spending, including $347 million relating to a Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act compliance program.
Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and John Thune, R-S.D., last week announced their intention to introduce legislation that would give Congress a direct say in how the $80 billion in fresh funding for IRS is spent.
Carl Szabo, vice president of the tech industry group NetChoice, told FedScoop that Reps. James Comer, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Jim Jordan — all of whom are slated to lead major committees in a GOP-led house — are sponsors of a bill to protect speech from government interference, and that they’re likely to use their new power to pursue deep-dive investigations into the tools being used by agencies, including DHS, to tackle misinformation.
Departure of expertise
A changing of the guard among lawmakers is likely to reduce focus on certain cybersecurity policy proposals including FISMA and FITARA reform. If the Republicans take the House, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., will lose his position as chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations.
“No longer having Connolly setting the agenda will be a major setback for the federal IT community,” said one federal IT policy source. A potential Republican successor for Connolly remains uncertain, with lawmakers such as Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., being floated as a candidate.
IT policy sources also emphasized that it will take several months for the Republican Party to hire sufficient staff to reshape the House committees, and that the likely structure of subcommittees remains uncertain. The House Oversight steering committee could, for example, establish a subcommittee focused specifically on federal IT operations.
In addition, heightened scrutiny from lawmakers raises the specter of further government agency IT leadership departures, even as government departments struggle to hire and retain cybersecurity talent. As one IT policy source: “If you’re going to get the s*** kicked out of you, are you going to stick around?”
Federal IT policy leaders speaking with FedScoop warned of a pressure-cooker environment on the Hill arising from the increased pace of oversight, but added that agency leaders have been preparing for this outcome and should have the support mechanisms in place to rebuff partisan attacks.
“Don’t forget that agencies and the White House are expecting this and have staffed up with lawyers and senior advisers,” said one policy expert.
House Republicans have expressed their intent to interrogate DHS’s attempts to tackle misinformation and disinformation.
“All the key House Republicans that will lead tech-related committees are sponsors of legislation to protect speech from government interference, which would affect DHS activity significantly,” added Szabo. “They’ve openly said they’ll do a deep-dive investigation into misinformation and disinformation reduction efforts by the Biden administration and the tools and technologies the federal government is using to push social media platforms and the tech industry to moderate content or censor.”
Democrats say disinformation — false information spread deliberately — is a threat to democracy and national security. However, an increasing number of Republicans regard attempts to counter disinformation as a threat to First Amendment rights.
In particular, Republicans have expressed concerns about a February bulletin from DHS saying the federal government plans to work with public and private sector partners, including major social media companies, to reduce the “proliferation of false or misleading narratives, which sow discord or undermine public trust in U.S. government institutions.”
CISA also published a report in June setting out plans to tackle misinformation and disinformation that some Republicans have warned could result in censorship under the guise of national security or election security.
DHS provoked the ire of Republicans and stirred national controversy in April with its launch of a Disinformation Governance Board. The agency was pressured to backtrack and shut down the committee after it received criticism from both sides of the political aisle.
Another key area where technology leaders can expect further attention from a Republican-led House of Representatives is in the area of digital record-keeping.
Top House Republicans earlier this month called out Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Gary Gensler for inconsistencies and hypocrisy with digital record-keeping laws. Such criticism is likely to become more vocal, and it could result in fresh investigations being launched.
The controversial deletion of Secret Service phone data around the time of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol revealed wider systemic problems with federal digital records preservation. Republicans have already sent Biden administration officials hundreds of record preservation letters indicating their intent to probe the administration for illegal behavior, including regarding federal transparency laws.
“Republicans took aim at the SEC and Gary Gensler recently, so we expect that to continue in the majority because they’re mad at him for his ideological agenda and his record-keeping stuff,” said James Czerniawski, senior tech policy analyst at the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. “The Federal Trade Commission, which regulates tech companies, will also face scrutiny from Republicans for their policies and spending, including through records preservation.”
House Republicans that are likely to control key committees, including Jordan, Comer and Tom Emmer, sent the SEC a letter Nov. 2 pointing to reports that the agency was “failing to comply with federal record-keeping statutes.”
The GOP letter also referred to recent litigation showing that the “SEC is failing to identify and produce records of official business conducted on non-email or ‘off-channel’ platforms, such as Signal, WhatsApp, Teams, and Zoom.”
In addition, Republicans have criticized SEC officials for using the private communications platforms for official business, without producing these records in response to open-record requests, while at the same time aggressively enforcing record-keeping laws on Wall Street banks. The SEC in September fined Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and other financial firms over $1.1 billion after bankers discussed deals and trades on their personal devices and apps.
Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee in August also sent the Federal Trade Commission a letter outlining their intent to investigate recent watchdog findings of the agency’s use of unpaid consultants and experts, and instructed the agency to preserve all relevant digital records.
Benjamin Freed contributed to this article.