Bid to revive Capitol Hill tech office fails

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.

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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