Congress

House members call for Office of Technology Assessment revival

Reps. Sean Casten, pictured here, and Mark Takano urged colleagues to fund and revive the Office of Technology Assessment. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Reps. Sean Casten and Mark Takano appealed to their colleagues Tuesday to fund and restore a Capitol Hill technology agency that was defunded more than 20 years ago, as advocates say it could help Congress’s capacity to understand emerging technology and its social and policy implications.

The Office of Technology Assessment, often referred to as OTA, provided Congress with objective analysis of complex technology issues from 1972 to 1995. The agency’s mission was to ensure the lawmakers had information they needed on new or expanding technologies and objective information assessing impacts, policy proposals and scientific expertise “to match that of the executive branch.”

Casten, a freshman Democrat from Illinois, told the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday that he relied on the OTA resources when he worked in the private sector and came into Congress with the aim to bring it back.

“I’m pretty sure I’m the only freshman member who made a campaign pledge to restore the OTA,” he told the panel to laughs.

Casten says the OTA could serve a unique role, even as the Congressional Research Service continues to produce reports and the Government Accountability Office ramps up their new Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team.

“While the Congressional Research Service does tremendous work in keeping this body informed on a wide array of relevant policy issues, they are not equipped to fulfill the forward looking, deep-dive, technical assessments of new scientific and technological developments once provided by OTA,” said Casten.

“They don’t have the horsepower, the skills or the resources to do more synthesis,” he said.

Casten lamented that Congress has instead relied on executive branch experts and non-governmental groups that are often advocating a position on technological issues, rather than an unbiased perspective.

“OTA gave us an objective set of truths. We may have creative ideas about how to deal with that truth, but let’s not start by arguing about the laws of thermodynamics,” he told the panel.

Takano, a longtime advocate of reviving the OTA, said that more pressing and complicated technology issues will be before Congress in the future and warned that lawmakers and staff alone aren’t prepared to handle them. The lack of understanding of technology issues has become a punchline in recent years, including when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testified in both the House and Senate and lawmakers struggled with basic technology terms and concepts.

“Congress needs access to unbiased technological expertise to weigh the pros and cons of policy questions surrounding cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and so many more matters,” said Takano.

Casten pointed to technology issues that are brought up across all committees in Congress, including cybersecurity threats, privacy, foreign influence, the gig economy changing employment and labor, cryptocurrency and mail-order genetic testing, to emphasize his view that all members of congress would benefit from having the OTA as a resource.

The fiscal 2019 Legislative Branch spending bill included a directive for CRS to study and report on current resources available to members of Congress regarding science and technology policy and the need for or duplication of resources possible if a separate nonpartisan entity was created to advise on science and technology issues. The panel didn’t discuss results of that inquiry.

Takano estimated that approximately $2.5 million would be required to stand up the OTA, and $35 million to fully staff the office. He said that the expenditure wouldn’t have to come all at once.

Subcommittee Chairman Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, warned his colleagues that the funding is far from guaranteed.

“We’re struggling to get money for this subcommittee. It’s going to be a battle royale,” he said.

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