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Chairman Yarmuth Opening Statement at Virtual Hearing on COVID-19 & the Need for Federal Investments in Technology

Jul 15, 2020

Washington, D.C.— Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, gave the following opening statement at today’s virtual hearing examining how the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the failings of antiquated information technology (IT) systems and accelerated the already obvious need for federal investments to update and modernize technology solutions. Remarks as prepared are below:

It’s appropriate that today, on our postponed Tax Day, we are discussing how our nation’s outdated information technology systems have failed to meet the needs of the American people. Rash funding cuts over the past decade have prevented the IRS from modernizing its IT systems, deteriorating the agency’s ability to not only carry out its core function of tax collection and enforcement, but also needlessly prolonging the delivery of stimulus payments to workers and families during the coronavirus pandemic and recession.

The coronavirus pandemic has proved that the quicker the response the better the outcome – and that the steps taken by Congress to help American workers and families are only as effective as the agencies delivering that relief. Unfortunately, the IRS is not alone in its inability to meet the needs of the American people in this perilous time.

Instead of helping to generate much-needed solutions, outdated IT systems are worsening an already difficult situation as Americans grapple with unreliable or insufficient internet access, useless automated systems, and overwhelmed and underprepared agencies. Emergency assistance programs across the board have been hampered by our antiquated IT systems – leaving families with delayed relief or no relief at all.

The most glaring example is unemployment assistance. We are four months into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and there are still tens of thousands of workers who have filed for jobless claims but have not yet received a single payment. Many are going into debt or default, skipping meals, or losing their homes.

State unemployment offices, already underfunded and understaffed, were left completely unprepared for the massive influx of need. And a big reason for that is the fact that national administrative funding is essentially the same as it was in 2001 – and that’s before accounting for inflation.

This lack of federal investment combined with old hardware, crashing web servers, and the need for new-hires proficient in COBOL – their systems’ 60-year old coding language – have left states scrambling. Their antiquated IT systems failed and continue to fail repeatedly – and American workers, those who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, are paying the price.

This aspect of our ongoing crisis is not new. The federal government has long sought to prioritize modern, secure, and shared IT solutions, but funding uncertainties – stemming from constrained discretionary funding under budget caps, shutdown threats, and continuing resolutions – have made agencies more likely to update instead of modernize. GAO reports that while the total share of federal IT spending is increasing, it isn’t because we are investing in better and new technology. It’s because the price of updating our existing systems is snowballing as our ancient software becomes increasingly outdated and hardware parts nearly impossible to find.

We are passing these acute problems on to state and local partners that distribute unemployment insurance, nutrition assistance, and other support to workers and families on behalf of the federal government.

Federal and state governments are in dire need of solutions – and investments – now. We cannot foster a successful recovery while relying on IT systems from the 1950s. We cannot meet the demands of today when we are depending on software that is older than some Members of this Committee.

To date, Congress has passed legislation that includes $1 billion in grants to state unemployment offices to help process claims faster – and more is needed.

By refusing to bring the Heroes Act to the floor, Leader McConnell is holding up an additional $1 billion for the federal Technology Modernization Fund and a combined $5.5 billion to help schools, libraries, and impacted families access high speed connectivity and devices to facilitate distance learning – something we must prioritize in order to protect our children and educators.

And earlier this month, House Democrats passed the Moving Forward Act, a comprehensive infrastructure package that includes $100 billion in broadband funding to extend high speed internet to underserved and hard to reach communities.

We have to invest in modernization now, so that the federal government can help provide workers, families, and state and local governments with the necessary tools and resources to support our nation’s recovery efforts. I look forward to discussing this urgent need with our witnesses.
 

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