Time to reeducate Congress about science and technology

Brookhaven National Laboratory. Source. BNL.gov

Political momentum is building to revive the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a congressional agency that once provided lawmakers with nonpartisan technical expertise. Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang have even made reviving the OTA planks of their platforms, with Yang making a plug for the OTA during the fifth Democratic debate.

Although there have been efforts to reopen or re-imagine the OTA since its closure in 1995, Capitol Hill has been abuzz this past year with proposals to get Congress up to speed on science and technology (S&T). In the fall of 2018, Congress directed the Congressional Research Service (CRS) to contract with the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to study the issue, intimating that Congress may actually mean business. The NAPA report, released shortly before the Thanksgiving holiday, offered recommendations for whether and how to strengthen Congress’ “technology assessment” capacity and to improve S&T expertise in Congress generally.

What is technology assessment, and does Congress really need it?

The term “technology assessment” dates to the 1960s when lawmakers, and members of Congress in particular, became increasingly concerned about their inability to grapple effectively with the challenges and opportunities posed by modern technology. The result of these debates was the Technology Assessment Act of 1972, which created a new congressional agency whose primary purpose would be “to provide early indications of the probable beneficial and adverse impacts of the applications of technology and to develop other coordinate information which may assist the Congress.”

Part of Congress’ motivation in creating the OTA was to ensure the legislature had its own unbiased source of expertise, thus decreasing its dependence on the executive branch. This was part of a broader effort in the late 1960s and early 1970s to strengthen Congress and counterbalance the power of the executive. It was hoped that the OTA, in particular, would allow Congress to take ownership of technical matters that had become predominantly the purview of executive agencies. As one representative put it, although members of Congress “are not scientists … in our system of government we have our responsibility. We are not the rubber stamps of the administrative branch of government.”

With a bipartisan structure and no lawmaking power of its own, the OTA evolved over time into a respected support agency alongside CRS, the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that offered members and committees nonpartisan advice about technical matters ranging from biotechnology and defense research and development to Alzheimer’s disease and transportation. The OTA’s primary output was its technology assessment reports — cross-disciplinary, peer-reviewed studies on technical subjects initiated by congressional committees and the OTA’s bipartisan Technology Assessment Board. Crucially, these reports did not make policy recommendations, although they did indicate the costs and benefits of various policy approaches to the technical issues at hand.

Congress’ own “think tank” operated until 1995, when it was defunded by congressional Republicans as a part of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. The move was primarily symbolic — the OTA’s budget was little more than a rounding error by federal standards — showing Congress’ willingness to shrink government. Ironically, however, it may have helped grow the administrative state by hampering Congress’ ability to conduct meaningful oversight of expert agencies in the executive branch, much less legislate on urgent technical matters.

While cheerleaders for the OTA have made calls to bring back the agency for decades, some of the OTA’s functions have since been lodged elsewhere in Congress. In particular, a 2002 appropriations bill allowed the GAO to initiate an experimental technology assessment program, which became permanent in 2008. GAO has recently redoubled its efforts in this area and hopes to expand its Science and Technology Assessment and Analytics group to as many as 140 staffers to be on par with the OTA in its heyday.

The NAPA report, for its part, recommends leveraging existing congressional support services, including GAO and CRS, rather than reviving or recreating the OTA. The authors suggest that GAO’s technology assessment program can provide the kind of deep, probing analysis that OTA reports used to offer, while CRS can, with adequate resources, offer faster-response advice to members of Congress on whatever S&T issues concern them. Meanwhile, a new Office of the Congressional Science and Technology Advisor can “serve as Congress’ S&T ombudsman, coordinating disparate pools of S&T expertise within the Congress and outside the Congress.” The details of how such a new office would operate — and the political hurdles that would have to be overcome in order to create it — are still to be determined.

Other scholars remain skeptical that existing institutions, such as GAO or CRS, will be able to provide the kind of service that the OTA offered Congress at its best. Details aside, there appears to be an emerging consensus that the Constitution’s first branch is ill-prepared to tackle some of the most pressing challenges of the day and that it will need more and better technical resources to do so.

Democrats have been leading the OTA charge so far, but there are good reasons for Republicans to join the fight, as my colleague Zach Graves and I have argued elsewhere. At a moment when left and right have become preoccupied by the ethical and social implications of emerging technologies — from Big Tech and cybersecurity to automation and biotechnology — as well as the dangers posed by executive power, conservatives and progressives alike should support efforts to equip Congress with the tools it needs to weigh the positives and negatives of emerging technologies and to deliberate about what actions to take, if any. While this would not be a silver bullet, the alternative — the status quo — is to leave such political questions to unelected experts within the executive branch.

Filed Under:
Topics: Congress & Technology