As dramatic across-the-board cuts to the federal budget appear more likely with each passing day, part of the automatic sequestration plan passed in 2011, federal officials are raising concerns about the cuts' effects on federal IT.
"By cutting technology, it's going to put us into situations where we either stagnate progress or have to rethink the delivery of things," federal CIO Steven VanRoekel said in an interview last week with InformationWeek. "It puts us on our heels from a forward progress standpoint."
The billions of dollars in automatic cuts due to kick in March 1 stem from the Budget Control Act of 2011 and American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, which trigger $1.2 trillion in across-the-board decreases to both defense and non-defense discretionary spending if Congress is unable to reach a deal on how best to enact more measured cuts in the federal budget.
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The Office of Management and Budget, VanRoekel said, has been working with federal agencies to plan and consider how they may need to alter their IT plans in the face of sequestration. VanRoekel's remarks came Friday, just as the White House released a fact sheet detailing how sequestration could more broadly affect federal spending, including via "cuts to research and innovation."
In the interview, VanRoekel expressed concern about the effects of sequestration on citizen-facing services reliant on IT. For example, he partially attributed the scaling back of a joint Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs electronic health records program to sequestration concerns.
VanRoekel also warned that sequestration could return the U.S. cybersecurity posture from an increasingly proactive one to a reactive posture. "Cybersecurity is such an evolving threat that we have to be ever vigilant, we have to be proactive, we have to be investing dollars and engaging smart contractors to think about how to lean forward," he said. "Sequestration could create scenarios where we [are not] promoting forward progress. You create a scenario where it's not where we need to be."
The Department of Defense would be among the agencies hardest hit by sequestration. Cuts there will also have an impact on military IT, as military leaders expressed Tuesday in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
For example, the Air Force is de-scoping and setting up funding to run only through fiscal 2013 for some IT services contracts, and would reduce hours of some missile warning and space surveillance operations. The Marine Corps, meanwhile has reallocated lower-priority funding to maintain cybersecurity spending, but says that it will still have to delay contributions to joint cyber forces as a result of sequestration. The Army is reducing its Science and Technology programs by about $300 million.
Effects are already starting to be seen. For example, the Defense Cyber Crime Center canceled the DOD Cyber Crime Conference as a result of direction to reduce spending in approach of the sequester.
DOD officials worry that the effects of sequestration, while heavy for the military, could also hinder education in areas important for technical careers. "In the long run, national security rests on a strong economy, and also on non-defense functions -- like education, especially science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) -- provided in other parts of the federal budget," deputy secretary of defense Ash Carter said in testimony before the Senate committee. "While not part of this hearing, the drastic nature of sequestration would obviously be harmful to these functions too."