House mulls revival of shuttered tech office

U.S. Capitol (Photo by M DOGAN / Shutterstock) 

House appropriators are considering a revival of the Office of Technology Assessment to give nonpartisan scientific and technical advice to members of Congress.

The push is starting small. Report language in the bill that funds the legislative branch, which passed committee on May 8, called for the Congressional Research Service to study the resources available to members of Congress on scientific and technology policy.

"This study should also assess the potential need within the Legislative Branch to create a separate entity charged with the mission of providing nonpartisan advice on issues of science and technology," the report stated.

The legislation also called for the study to examine whether members are getting the kind of support formerly provided by OTA via existing entities such as the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service itself.

The OTA provided scientific and technological advice to Congress from 1972, when it was formed as part of a push to create environmental standards for industry, to 1995, when it was shuttered as a cost-cutting move by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The OTA was controlled by a bipartisan board of lawmakers that directed its efforts. According to a 2005 CRS report, funding for the OTA peaked in the early 1990s at about $20 million annually with 140 staffers. Over the years, the office produced more than 750 reports on the environment, disease, computer security, technology and more.

The bid to possibly resurrect the OTA comes as many people inside and outside of Congress worry about the level of objective advice lawmakers are getting on technology.

Seamus Kraft, the founder and executive director of the OpenGov Foundation and a former Hill staffer is a big supporter of reconstituting the OTA. Kraft was a staffer for California Republican Darrell Issa when the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act was introduced in 2011.  Kraft said Issa's office received more than 70 calls from Republican lawmakers wanting information on the basics of how the internet works. Today, Kraft noted, almost every policy considered by Congress has some technological element.

"Congress needs some sort of emerging technology capacity that it clearly does not have today," Kraft told FCW.

A report from the R Street Institute, which has been pushing for the OTA's comeback, noted that declining budgets for legislative offices mean that knowledgeable staffers to support members on tech issues are few and far between.

"In part, this is because roughly 40 percent of Capitol Hill staff are under 24 years of age and staff turnover is high, which inhibits the development of expertise," the report stated.

"Today, very few members of Congress are expert in technological issues. So who can they turn to for nonpartisan advice? Mostly, the executive branch and private firms, each of whom have their own agendas and biases," said R Street vice president for policy Kevin Kosar in an email to FCW. "On any other issue -- budgeting, defense, postal policy -- Congress can turn to nonpartisan experts at the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office. But on technological issues Congress has few trusted resources."

In an April 13 column, Jessica Rosenworcel, a member of the Federal Communications Commission and a former senior staffer and counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee, noted that the nearly 100 members of Congress who grilled Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg at recent hearings could have benefited from more background on how social media technology actually works.

"As this week's hearings demonstrated," Rosenworcel wrote, "the digital age is so complex that old laws do not neatly capture how we interact with new technologies, and understandable facts about how the online world works are in short supply."

In late April, Reps. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) and Mark Takano (D-Calif.) introduced a resolution calling for the restoration of the OTA.

"From social media's role in our elections to artificial intelligence and robots in the workplace, Congress is not adequately prepared to lead on technical issues that could have serious effects on our country’s future," Foster, a trained physicist, said in a statement.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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