Bid to revive Capitol Hill tech office fails

On a mostly party-line vote, the House rejected an effort bring back the Office of Technology Assessment.

US Congress House side Shutterstock photo ID: 156615524 By mdgn editorial use only

A bid to revive the Office of Technology Assessment, an internal congressional think tank that produced reports on technical matters for lawmakers, failed on a mostly party-line June 8 vote in the House of Representatives.

The vote was 195 in favor of reviving the office with an initial outlay of $2.5 million, and 217 votes against. Just 15 Republicans supported the measure, notably Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.) who chairs the tech-heavy Energy and Commerce Committee, and Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) who heads the Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee.

Some notable nays included Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), who chairs the IT subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a former technology entrepreneur who was the lead sponsor of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform legislation and the Data Act.

The amendment sponsored on by Rep Mark Takano (D-Calif.) was not debated on the floor.

"The bad news is that our amendment to bring back the Office of Technology Assessment failed today," tweeted Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), who has a Ph.D. in physics. "The good news is that more Members voted to #BringbacktheOTA. Congress needs nonpartisan technical advice on issues that we face everyday."

"This is a missed opportunity," said Travis Moore, founder and director of the TechCongress program, which places graduate students in technology fields in the offices of lawmakers and congressional committees.

"The [Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg hearings put on full display what I experienced for six years as a staffer: Congress isn't equipped to understand technology issues. Tech is baked into every committee's jurisdiction. Without tech expertise in-house Congress will increasingly have to rely on the executive branch and interest groups to keep up."

The OTA was shuttered by Newt Gingrich in 1995 as part of a cost-cutting measure. At its peak, OTA had a budget of $20 million and employed 140 staffers. It produced what were considered authoritative reports on a variety of scientific and technical topics.

The think tank R Street advocated for the OTA revival in an April 2018 report that bemoaned declining staff budgets and high turnover on Capitol Hill.

This article was updated June 8 with additional comment.