Congress needs to get its nerd on

Bring back the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment

Mitch McConnell.
(Image credit: Illustrated | zrfphoto/iStock, Voyagerix/iStock, NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images, NATALIIA OMELCHENKO/iStock, Screenshot/Amazon)

When Google's Sundar Pichai becomes the latest Silicon Valley boss to testify before Congress — the state funeral for former President George H. W. Bush bumped his scheduled appearance to probably next week — a wide array of issues will be discussed, from corporate power to political bias. And almost certainly there will be several cringe-worthy comments from tech-challenged politicians. Recall Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's Washington visit in April and the inability of his congressional questioners to grasp the basics of the company's business model.

All in all, then, perhaps not much progress since the late Sen. Ted Stevens infamously described the internet as a "series of tubes." And the knowledge gap is probably going to worsen as Congress is confronted by a host of emerging technologies playing an ever bigger role in our lives. Just imagine how some future hearing about genetic editing is going to go as a research scientist struggles to explain why CRISPR won't soon give America an army of Captain America-like super soldiers. "Actually, senator, Steve Rogers was injected with a super-serum and then exposed to special radiation called 'vita-rays' that … oh, forget it."

If only Congress had access to its own expert advisory panel to help it better understand and engage in critical policy debates surrounding science and technology. Maybe something like the current Congressional Budget Office, for instance. The CBO is a widely respected agency within the legislative branch that analyzes budgetary and economic issues and their impacts. And while it sometimes offers a menu of policy options, it doesn't make specific recommendations.

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Of course, Congress used to have just such an internal think tank dedicated to all manner of science wonkery. From the mid-1970s through mid-1990s, the Office of Technology Assessment was tasked with providing Congress with deep expertise on the potential beneficial as well as adverse impacts of emerging technologies. It was kind of a big deal, with 140 employees and a budget of $22 million at its peak. Over the course of two decades, the OTA generated nearly a thousand reports on an impressive range of subjects including oil shale, artificial insemination, and anti-missile technologies.

But the OTA's range was maybe a bit too impressive. The agency seemed to earn the everlasting ire of Republicans in the 1980s when its experts published a series of reports undermining the technological feasibility of the Reagan administration's anti-missile Strategic Defense Initiative. When Republicans took back the House and Senate in 1995, they shuttered the OTA. Democrats have been eager to bring it back, the GOP not so much. The Republican-controlled House voted in June 2018 on a bill that would have created the office, with an initial price tag of $2.5 million, but it failed 195-217. Only 15 Republicans voted in favor of the bill.

One wonders if a vote to newly establish a CBO, if one didn't already exist, would do much better among Republicans than the OTA revival. Many in the GOP disparage the budget agency for its cautious analysis on the economic impact of tax cuts, although such analysis is well within the economic mainstream. And if there were a new OTA, Republicans would probably find much to hate about its reports on climate change.

But there are plenty of other subjects without such established political baggage. There really isn't a conservative or liberal position on how autonomous vehicles will affect U.S. infrastructure or how artificial intelligence will challenge national security. And sure, there are other existing agencies that do tech analysis so that Congress doesn't have to solely rely on outside groups. But none do the sort of lengthy and broad evaluation of the data, literature, and outside experts that the OTA did. And if the current system were working, we would already see a more informed Congress.

Unless, of course, you don't want a better-informed Congress so it avoids legislating rules on the private sector. Or perhaps there is a belief in Trumpworld that populism requires a rejections of expertise. As one Brexit proponent put it, "I think that the people of this country have had enough of experts."

But sometimes congressional rule-making aids innovation and members need to be well informed. As a recent R Street Institute report points out, policymakers often must give a "green light" on new innovation or put in place forward-looking guidelines to show entrepreneurs how old rules will apply to new situations. Now maybe a revived OTA is overkill and existing agencies and congressional staffs could merely be beefed up, as some agency opponents argue. And thanks to the internet, senators and representatives have lots of information at their fingertips. But the OTA's past record is pretty impressive. And R Street has some good ideas to make the agency less vulnerable to charges of bias. Plus, you never know what you're going to find on the intertubes.

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