Lawmakers Want to Boost Their Tech-Savvy By Reviving Defunct Office

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They want to reopen the Office of Technology Assessment, a research group that once kept Congress up to date on emerging technology.

Lawmakers want to resurrect a long-shuttered congressional office to boost their tech-savvy and help government grapple with privacy, cybersecurity and more of today’s trickiest tech issues.

Reps. Bill Foster, D-Ill., and Mark Takano, D-Calif., on Thursday introduced a resolution to renew funding for the Office of Technology Assessment, echoing the sentiments technologists who for years have pled to reopen the defunct policy shop. Launched in 1972 and closed in 1995, the non-partisan office served as an internal research group that kept Congress up to speed on the most pressing emerging tech issues of the day.

As lawmakers deal with data breaches, internet freedom and online national security threats, many accuse them of trying to make rules for a game they don’t understand. Indeed, only 3 percent of Congress has a background in STEM, and the recent hearings with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg put Capitol Hill’s lack of tech literacy on full display.

As researchers at the right-leaning R Street Institute put it in a recent paper, “it does not take much effort to find embarrassing knowledge gaps among our lawmakers.”

Reopening the office would help Congress enact informed policies on issues “that are often outside their technical areas of expertise” and enable the government to make smarter technology investments, according to legislation text. It would also shed light on emerging threats and vulnerabilities, strengthening the country’s economic and national security, the resolution said.

“We now live in a world where technology has become increasingly important in our personal lives, workplaces, and democracy,” Foster said in a statement. “Congress is not adequately prepared to lead on technical issues that could have serious effects on our country’s future.”

Despite more than two decades of inactivity, the office remains a legally authorized organization and could open its doors as soon as funds are granted, said Mary Werden, Foster’s communications director.

The current proposal would allot $2.5 million to the office, Werden told Nextgov, but in an ideal world, it would receive $22 million, the 1995 funding level. Though the bill doesn’t detail its organizational structure, the office was originally overseen by a board six congressmen and six senators, split evenly by party.

“Far too often, this body goes with knee-jerk reactions instead of crafting smart solutions to technical problems,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who intends to introduce a companion bill in Senate, in a statement. “Reviving the Office of Technology Assessment as an independent body, dedicated to giving Congress nonpartisan advice would go a long way to filling that need.”