The new March Madness

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COMMENTARY | The 2024 budget has yet to pass halfway through the fiscal year.

Just two years ago, in March, 2022, I scoured the $1.5 trillion omnibus appropriations bill that funded the government through the 2022 fiscal year to unearth IT and cyber spending, as well as management and policy guidance, in an act that others called masochistic madness. 

I read through the massive bill -- all 2,741 pages of it -- to tease out key highlights. After taking about nine months to heal, I took on the same task for the $1.7 trillion omnibus appropriations law enacted in December, 2022 for FY2023. 

Republicans complained then about a 4,155 page bill being "dumped on them at the last minute" and vowed they would never allow that to happen again. In fairness, "only" 1,833 pages of the bill covered the regular discretionary spending of the federal government. The rest of the bill included supplementals for Ukraine, disaster relief, electoral count reform and presidential transition improvement, legislation like No TikTok on Government Devices, the Secure 2.0 Act of 2022, the Strong Veterans Act of 2022 and the Contract Act of 2022, Post Office designations, technical corrections of the just enacted National Defense Authorization Act, and some other miscellaneous provisions. 

The GOP House though remained upset and pushed for a return to "regular order" where Congress could review and consider each of the 12 annual appropriations bills. 

Halfway through FY 2024, with the administration's 2025 budget request already sent to Congress, one can see only modest progress towards that goal. 

On Saturday, March 9, President Biden signed a minibus appropriations act to fund roughly 30% of the federal government for the next six months. The legislation devotes $459 billion to the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Transportation, Veteran Affairs, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration, for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends on September 30. 

The legislation passed the Senate on March 8, by a 75 to 22 vote. It got through the House on Wednesday, March 6, with Speaker Mike Johnson only able to deliver 132 votes from his side of the aisle and needing 207 Democrats to pass the bill on a fast-track that required a two-thirds majority. A larger, trickier deadline for the rest of the government comes in two weeks, on March 22, when funding for the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and State will expire. Differences on funding levels and a number of policy provisions remain to be resolved.

This appropriation was a light lift, which is good since I am now just a kindly and well-intentioned elderly gentleman with memory issues; the bill was a mere 1,050 pages. Moreover, among the appropriations awaiting action is the one entitled Financial Services and General Government, which includes the Department of the Treasury, the Judiciary, the Executive Office of the President, the District of Columbia and several independent agencies, such as the General Services Administration, the Office of Personnel Management and others. This is where one might expect to find funding and guidance on the Technology Modernization Fund, service to citizens, IT management and modernization, government oversight, CIO authorities. the Technology Transformation Service, 18F, return to the office mandates and so on. So stay tuned until the end of the month.

The past two appropriations had reflected a growing congressional recognition of both the importance of IT as critical to mission success and citizen services and also the need to strengthen the role and authorities of CIO's in departmental management. This year, such language could only be found in the sections funding USDA and HUD (more on this later). Some highlights:

Veterans Affairs

For necessary expenses for IT systems and telecommunications support, $6.4 billion, with $1.6 billion for pay, $4.6 billion for operations and maintenance, and $126 million for systems development, modernization and enhancement. If this doesn't demonstrate the imbalance between spending on O&M versus DME then nothing will. There is a separate section on funding and guidance for the Veterans Electronic Health Records System, which is funded outside the VA's Office of Information and Technology. 


For necessary expenses for the Office of the CIO, $91 million, of which $77.4 million is for cybersecurity requirements of the entire department. The act also states that none of the funds made available to the department may be used to acquire new IT systems or upgrades without the approval of the CIO and the concurrence of the Executive IT Investment Review Board. Last year, the National Academy of Public Administration issued a detailed report on multiple challenges facing the department's National Finance Center, an early government shared services success story, that payrolls almost 700,000 employees across multiple departments and agencies. The language in this appropriation is not new for FY2024. Nor is it unusual for Congress to provide guidance or require notification before executive branch agencies take certain actions or obligate funds. But the language providing guidance on the part of USDA's Working Capital Fund used to support the NFC is lengthy (almost three pages) and detailed. For example, no changes to the NFC can be made without written notification and prior approval of the committees on appropriations of both houses of Congress (e.g., none of the funds ... shall be available for obligation or expenditure to initiate, plan, develop, implement, or make any changes to remove or relocate any systems, missions, personnel, or functions of the offices of the CFO and the CIO, co-located with or from the NFC prior to written notification to and prior approval of ... ). And there's more.  


For necessary expenses of the Office of the CIO, $33.9 million.

Housing and Urban Development

For necessary expenses of the Office of the CIO, $70 million. For departmentwide and program-specific IT systems and infrastructure, $383 million, of which up to $24 million shall be for DME. Also, the Secretary is given authority to transfer amounts made available for salary and expenses for the department to an Information Technology Fund for IT needs and additional DME; such transfers shall not exceed $5 million and shall not be used to fund IT projects that have a known one-year cost in excess of $500k. The Secretary is also authorized to transfer certain unobligated balances of expired discretionary funds for IT infrastructure capital needs subject to approval by OMB and advance notification of the House and Senate appropriations committees. 

Now let's wait for a decision on funding for the remaining 70% of the government as well as guidance on a number of important IT and management matters. I'll be standing by. I hope you will be too.