CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, CLINT SCHEMMER
Troublesome castoffs or handy hardware that helps Americans in need?
The choice is up to Congress, say U.S. Reps. Abigail Spanberger, Rob Wittman and Elaine Luria. The House members from Virginia seek to iron out a nonsensical wrinkle in how the federal government treats its surplus computer gear.
Their proposal, the bipartisan Computers for Veterans and Students Act, would enable certified, nonprofit companies to refurbish and distribute repairable, surplus computers to benefit needy veterans, students and seniors. Under an archaic 1949 law controlling government surplus, that’s now impossible.
The Republican-Democrat-backed legislation would require nonprofit refurbishers that receive older U.S. computers to provide training programs in use of their technology.
“It is an honor to introduce this bipartisan legislation to help ensure veterans and students have the technology they need to be successful,” Wittman, R-1st, told the Culpeper Star-Exponent and The Free Lance-Star. “This is a prime example of innovative nonprofits working hand-in-hand with the government to provide effective solutions for our nation’s veterans.
“Throughout my time in Congress, I have been working hard to close the digital divide and to provide for those who fought for us,” he added. “The COVID-19 pandemic has laid plain how important it is for all Americans to have access to technology, and this legislation helps provide access to the people who have served our nation and to those who need it most.”
In an interview, Spanberger said she and her colleagues aim to fix a hangup that’s causing waste and inefficiency in the General Service Administration’s Federal Surplus Personal Property Program. Many people who get government computers from it don’t have the money or ability to refurbish the equipment so it can be used, she said.
The program was created under the post-World War II Federal Property and Administrative Services Act, when no one could have imagined the 21st century’s computer technology.
The program leaves the federal government without the authority to transfer repairable equipment to third-party computer refurbishers, Spanberger said. Addressing that is the challenge, she said.
“The Computers for Veterans and Students Act will help Virginians in need connect with the world and bridge the digital divide that has only grown since the pandemic,” Luria, D-2nd, said in a statement. “Getting technology in the hands of veterans, students, persons with disabilities, low-income individuals or seniors can be life-changing, and many communities in Coastal Virginia could benefit from this bipartisan legislation.”
The three Virginia lawmakers reintroduced their bill on Tuesday. They’d offered it in the past session of Congress, but the clock ran out as legislators spent month after month dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.
“This is an exciting piece of legislation that spans a couple of gaps and will be greatly useful to people,” Spanberger said.
The bill would ensure nonprofits and those they help can receive computers with less hassle and cost, which would particularly help students and veterans, she said. It would abide by the intent of the federal surplus-equipment program by requiring vendors to be verified by the government, the Virginian said.
Surplus government computers’ drives are wiped clean to safeguard security, but that means all their operating programs must be re-installed to make them usable.
Once refurbished, government computers—which are often pretty up to date—can be used by veterans for daily tasks, including searching for and apply for jobs as they transition to civilian life, Spanberger said.
“It’s so important for people to be able to be connected to the internet,” she said.
The Central Virginia legislator said she was tipped to the issue by Mark Casper, CEO of Tech For Troops, a nonprofit based in Henrico County.
“Tech for Troops is an amazing place to visit,” Spanberger said. “It uses its training to help veterans who are facing homelessness, then donates PCs to jobs-training programs. That helps veterans pivot into the workforce.”
The COIV-19 pandemic has increased homelessness and unemployment among veterans, Casper said.
Tech For Troops’ mission is to reduce both by providing vets with the technology and job skills they need to rejoin the workforce and provide for their families.
“As a veteran myself, it means so much to be able to help and give back to fellow veterans who need it most,” Casper said. “I am also personally honored and excited that Rep. Spanberger has agreed to support Tech For Troops and other nonprofits in our mission to provide digital inclusion across the USA.”
In 2020, which Casper’s nonprofit calls “The Lost Year,” it delivered 313 refurbished laptops and countless hours of workforce training to homeless and disabled veterans across the country. Through its recycling programs, that kept tons of electronic waste out of landfills, the group said.
Tech for Troops calls itself the fastest-growing nonprofit organization for veterans and their families in the United States.