Still Alive: The Movement to Un-Shutter the Office of Technology Assessment

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is a supporter of reviving the office. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is a supporter of reviving the office. Molly Riley/AP

Twenty-one years after “Contract with America” House Republicans abolished the Office of Technology Assessment, a revival movement of sorts persists among lawmakers, their staffs and Washington think tanks.

The OTA (1972-1995), with its exuberantly loyal staff of 100 who helped Congress address tech questions from a two-floor office in Southeast Washington, at its peak was producing 20 meaty reports a year. But in 1995 then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and others deemed it a liberal fillip unneeded at the dawn of the Internet age.

On Wednesday, Government Executive was permitted to sit in on a discussion of reviving OTA at which several dozen congressional staff, business and advocacy group representatives gathered under the auspices of a Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group formed by the nonprofits New America and the R Street Institute.

The upshot? The working group decided a new OTA-like entity is needed to counter congressional “ignorance,” but it would be smaller, nimbler and more appealing to conservative lawmakers whose priorities trend more toward national security than environmental protection.

In a capsule history of OTA, Adam Keiper, editor of The New Atlantis, stressed that OTA was a product of the 1960s political, cultural and environmental movements that raised questions of how to adapt to new science and technologies, such as nuclear power,  shale oil, new medical devices. “It was seen by conservatives as a creature of the left,” in part due to its embrace by liberal lawmakers such as Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. But its leaders and its bipartisan board chose the research topics in consultation with congressional committee chairs, Keiper said, and to the extent the agency had a bias it was mostly “not political but technocratic.”

As Keiper wrote in his history, “The Republican aversion to expert bureaucracies — the fear that a new agency will quickly fall into reflexive left-wing advocacy as so many old agencies have before it — is by no means unfounded. That has indeed been the pattern of the new departments, agencies, and bodies created by the federal government over the last several decades, perhaps including OTA. But there is a grave danger in this populist disparagement of expertise. When it comes to science and technology, most members of Congress, including many of those most deeply involved in the relevant policy fights, are dreadfully ignorant. They need serious and reliable advice and information, and the present structure of staff and support agencies is not sufficient to meet this need.”

Unlike the resource-limited Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office, Keiper added, OTA went beyond a literature search and brought in experts and stakeholders for rolling consultations with lawmakers and staff. 

Citing events that followed OTA’s abolition—the initial public offering of Netscape, the cloning of mammals and the post-9/11 efforts to defeat terrorism—he said OTA would have much to contribute.

Any effort to revive OTA should come from the right, said John Costello, a tech specialist with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He said he sees an agenda of studying such subjects as cyberwarfare, machine learning and artificial intelligence, once the “trust factor” was restored. 

A 21st-century OTA would give lawmakers research not provided by any consensus from the private sector, Costello added. It also would provide needed balance to the “federal government’s extreme advantage in expertise research, which can confound congressional inquiries by steeping the answers in technical language.”

OTA’s old thorough multi-step report process, Costello acknowledges, might have to be accelerated. Criticisms of the old OTA included that it didn’t always meet congressional needs. “By the time the study came out, the issue or legislation would have already passed,” he said. 

The new entity might have smaller staff, operate out of another agency, such as GAO, and require a new name and brand, he acknowledged. Its board could be expanded to 24 appointed members to help build bipartisan consensus. It might avoid controversial areas such a climate change and shale oil extraction, but take on driverless cars, Costello said. But without an OTA helping Congress tackle national security and international competitiveness issue, he said, “other nations will set the standard without us.”

Technically, the panelists noted, OTA never lost its charter—it was simply zeroed out in the budget. “People joke and say, ‘What’s to stop a chairman from ordering a report, or the Speaker from appointing new board members?’ ” Costello said, admitting that without funding, they would have no power.

The idea of reviving OTA has drawn support from such groups as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (whose president, Rush Holt, pressed for it while a member of Congress), and the American Institute of Physics.

The 114th Congress now nearing final adjournment saw a notable pick-up of bipartisan support for a new OTA. Last December, Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., received a letter of support for it from Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, along with 13 other House members, including Reps. Bill Foster, D-Ill. 

“The expertise provided by the OTA saved taxpayers billions of dollars by identifying cost-effective areas for future investment, and avoiding wasted money on technologies and policies that did not and could not work,” it said.

Foster added in a statement, “So much of what we consider before Congress today has complex, technical components that deserve complex, technical analyses. We may have deep philosophical differences over issues, and that debate is important, but if we’re not starting on sound technical and scientific footing, then it’s all just tilting at windmills. Restoring the Office of Technology Assessment will bring a much needed dose of logic and reason to Congress.”

Ryan did not act. In June, an amendment to the legislative branch appropriations bill to add funding for OTA introduced by Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., failed by a vote of 223-179.

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