How the Midterms Shake Up Tech Oversight

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Democrats taking over the House mean new leadership and potentially restructured subcommittees.

After claiming the House in Tuesday’s midterm elections, Democrats are preparing to reshape the chamber's oversight priorities.

In the coming months, the Democratic House Steering Committee will select committee chairmen, reorganize subcommittees and largely chart the chamber’s agenda for the next two years. While this process will realign the focus of virtually every House organization, the shift could be especially pronounced in the House Oversight and Government Reform committee.

Because House Oversight is responsible for monitoring government operations and investigating potential wrongdoing, it will likely represent one of the Democrats’ primary outlets for checking the Trump administration. But new leadership could also change the committee’s emphasis on other areas of oversight like contracting, IT modernization and the federal workforce.

Today, federal IT issues largely fall within the jurisdiction of two House Oversight subcommittees: IT and Government Operations. As Democrats take the helm, leaders could reshuffle the responsibilities and jurisdictions of both groups, said Mike Hettinger, a managing principal at the Hettinger Strategy Group and a former staff director with the House Oversight committee.

“You can structure your jurisdiction in a way that allows you to do the things you think are most important,” he said, adding party leaders can also create, combine or disband subcommittees as they see fit.

Hettinger told Nextgov the reorganization process won’t begin in earnest until lawmakers return from recess next week. After deciding on major roles like House speaker, they’ll begin the process of assigning committee chairs and reorganizing subcommittees, he said. Lawmakers vying for a top spot would “pitch” their plans for a given committee and party leaders would then use that information to make ultimate their decision, Hettinger told Nextgov.

Though some of those slots could be filled before the end of the year, he said, some committees likely won’t be fully chaired and staffed until January or February.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., is widely considered the favorite to lead the Oversight committee. He’s already made it clear he intends to use that authority to increase accountability over the Trump administration and support the interests of federal employees, and other committee members are rallying behind the agenda.

“We’re going to insist on aggressive oversight—we think that’s the mandate the public gave us last night,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., in a conversation with Nextgov. “We [also] have a radically different view of the federal employee and the federal workplace. We’ll ferret out malfeasance where it occurs, but we’re taking ... much more of an advocacy attitude than the position of hostility to the federal employee that has all too often characterized the Republican approach.”

As ranking member of House Oversight’s Government Operations subcommittee, Connolly is considered a frontrunner to take over the panel next year. Though he wouldn’t discuss his leadership ambitions, he highlighted some of his top priorities in the coming years.

Connolly said he’d like to see lawmakers to put more pressure on agencies to comply with the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act and push for higher cybersecurity standards in government infrastructure. While agencies involved in national security and intelligence have bolstered their cyber defenses in recent years, others remain vulnerable to attack, he said.

“I would expect we double down on that set of issues,” Connolly said. He added committee members would also support the White House’s push to innovate in emerging technologies, but only “to the extent they’re willing to work with us.”

Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., is also an early favorite for a tech-focused leadership role. She currently serves as ranking member of the House Oversight IT subcommittee and could potentially take the reins from chairman Will Hurd, R-Texas, who remains locked in a tight reelection battle.

Kelly told Nextgov she plans to focus her efforts on retraining the workforce for the digital economy and accelerating agencies’ adoption of emerging technologies. She added she is particularly interested in enhancing government cybersecurity, improving members’ understanding of new technologies and exploring the ways innovative tools can make a positive impact on people’s day-to-day lives.

In addition to the IT subcommittee, Kelly is also looking into a potential role on the Energy and Commerce subcommittee, which has historically dealt more with privacy standards and consumer protection than federal tech, according to her office.

Final leadership decisions are still months away, so it’s impossible to know how exactly each subcommittee’s agenda will change. But while there’s a high likelihood the Trump administration’s scandals will take center stage in the Oversight hearing room, Hettinger doesn’t expect the Democratic takeover to provoke a sea change in the IT world.

“For the most part, the IT and government operations portfolio is nonpartisan,” he said. “You work together because you recognize the government needs to do a better job of managing its IT infrastructure. [There]’s not going to be some massive shift in what everybody cares about, but it will obviously have a different spin because they’re coming at it from different political perspectives.”

Beyond general oversight, the shakeup in House leadership could also change the way lawmakers approach the Veterans Affairs Department’s multibillion dollar electronic health record overhaul. Earlier this year, the Republican leadership of the House Veterans Affairs committee stood up a Technology Modernization subcommittee to keep tabs on the EHR program and other efforts. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Penn., is the ranking member. The subcommittee’s fate remains up in the air.