Former Staffers: Revive Congress' Office of Technology Assessment Right or Don’t Bother

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There is a lot that could go wrong reconstituting Congress’ technology advisory office. But there’s a lot it could do to help, too.

Since it was shuttered in 1995, a few lawmakers have worked to bring back the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, a nonpartisan institution that used to provide background and policy advice on complex, cutting-edge technology issues. But what would it take to make such an office effective?

Revival efforts have yet to bear fruit, with the most recent legislation—to bring back the office with initial funding of $2.5 million—failing in the House last June.

But the calls have gotten stronger, particularly in the wake of several high-profile Congressional hearings in which lawmakers have shown ignorance of important technological topics. Such displays could have been avoided had the representatives been better educated on these topics.

As with most topics, educating lawmakers ahead of hearings is the task of Congressional staffers. That can be hard with such complex issues on short timelines.

“Point blank staff don’t have enough time to learn complex subject matters, sometimes in less than 48 hours,” the generally agreed upon window for lawmakers and staff to prepare for a hearing, according to Sasha Moss, federal government affairs manager at R Street and a former Republican House staffer.

When a topic has more immediacy, that can be whittled down to just 24 hours, Moss added.

Moss and a group of advocates and former Hill staffers from both sides of the aisle were invited by Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., a sponsor of the last OTA revival bill, to talk about what it would take to make the office viable.

Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress and a former attorney at the Congressional Research Service, noted the dichotomy between the legislative and executive branches when it comes to policy offices. For instance, on budgetary matters, the White House has the Office of Management and Budget while Congress has the Congressional Budget Office.

“There’s the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which is part of the executive branch. It makes sense to have an OTA—an office to analyze science and technology policy—for the legislative branch,” Schuman said. “Having something that is independent; that is capable of doing this work; that is bipartisan—or better yet, nonpartisan; that has buy-in from the political parties and the factions within the political parties is something that makes the most sense.”

There are other organizations out there that work with the legislative branch but none fulfill the role once occupied by OTA, panelists said.

Legislators already have the Government Accountability Office to offer non-partisan input on technical issues. This work is now being bolstered by GAO’s new Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics Team. But that organization’s work is rarely forward-looking, as GAO generally looks at whether a government agency is complying with policies and best practices.

An Office of Technology Assessment housed within the legislative branch would look forward to emerging technologies and educate lawmakers on the major aspects of those technologies while advising on potential policy options.

“Bringing back a technology assessment office is not going to fix all the stuff,” Schuman said. “But this solves a big piece of the problem. This makes it possible, this is the catalyst to be a better Congress, to do better things.”

Of course, that’s only true if the office is effective. For that to be the case, it needs to be well-resourced and nonpartisan, all panelists agreed.

“It can only function if some other things happen simultaneously,” said Robert Cook-Deegan, a professor at Arizona State University who worked in OTA in the 1980s.

“An OTA is only going to work if the leadership of both parties in both houses agrees to let it operate in a truly nonpartisan fashion,” Cook-Deegan said.

Cook-Deegan added there were two “structural features” of the former office that enabled this to occur: an internal board made up of equal members from both parties and both chambers, with a rotating chairmanship; and an external advisory committee, which he warned must strive to avoid becoming a partisan tool.

He also said the office will need sufficient funding to be effective.

Before it was closed down, the office had about 140 staffers and a budget of $25 million. Recent efforts to revive the office have allocated just a tenth of that—$2.5 million—to start. That will be enough to get things going, Schuman said, but just barely.

“There will be a build-out. It’s not just add water and money” and you get an instant office, he said. “Starting at two-and-a-half [million] will pay a couple people to figure out where to start putting the offices, things like that. There’s not going to be any kind of useful analysis at that point, except an analysis of what it would take to actually start to do useful analysis.”

Cook-Deegan agreed, in principle, but suggested it would take twice that just to get things going.

“It shouldn’t go to full-scale immediately,” he said, noting the OTA had a tough five-year curve the first time around. “But you can’t start too small. Two-and-a-half feels like it’s right on the edge.”

And if it’s not done right, it’s not worth doing, according to Cook-Deegan.

“If it’s set up for failure, that’s worse than not doing anything at all,” he said.