Senator Elizabeth Warren has joined a small but steady chorus of Washington lawmakers working to revive a little-known government agency that, not so long ago, helped members of Congress grasp how cutting-edge technology could help tackle the deluge of complex policy challenges that faced them—from Alzheimer’s and the reduction of greenhouse gases to arms control in space.
The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) was shuttered nearly 25 years ago against the wishes of many U.S. lawmakers who had relied heavily on its objective, scientific reports. Over its 23-year lifespan, the OTA produced some 700 studies—all of which can still be read online thanks to Princeton University—covering a truly diverse range of topics. Many of the problems it tackled still plague the country and the world over: What should we do about aging nuclear power plants and how do we properly screen for dangerous chemicals in our food, water and air?
The questions it asked and to which it offered answers would help Congress write laws that were actually useful and that saved taxpayers millions. In “Science and Technology Advice for Congress,” M. Granger Morgan, a professor of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, noted that OTA’s analysis was pivotal to modernizing the Social Security Administration’s IT infrastructure, saving taxpayers an estimated $368 million.
Arguing to resurrect the agency, Celia Wexler, a journalist and representative of the Center for Science and Democracy, wrote in 2015: “The world actually existed,” before the OTA was defunded, “a casualty of then-Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s budget-cutting.” Its demise, astrophysicist and former U.S. Congressman Rush Holt told Mother Jones in 2013, did much to worsen tech illiteracy on Capitol Hill.
In a statement Friday, Warren pointed to the 2018 Facebook hearings before the Senate Judiciary and Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation committees. A stunning number of lawmakers seemed blissfully ignorant of how the internet works. “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” Senator Orrin Hatch asked at one point during the infamous session.
It is becoming harder and harder, Warren says, for members of Congress to employ individual experts:
Our government works best when it can attract the top talent to tackle the difficult problems that we face. But congressional staff salaries for most roles have actually declined over the past few decades, making it harder for government to compete—and far more tempting for those who serve in government to go through the revolving door into the private sector.
In a democracy, Members of Congress invariably will come from a variety of backgrounds—and that’s a good thing. But we are increasingly asking them to climb steep learning curves on these technical subjects without much help other than from corporate lobbyists whose goal isn’t to find the right policy answer but rather to secure the most profitable outcome for their companies.
Warren, in an effort to reduce Congress’ reliance on corporate lobbyists as technology experts, has proposed not only reviving the OTA but increasing funding for other congressional support agencies, including the Congressional Budget and Accountability offices and the Congressional Research Service. What’s more, she wants congressional staffers to start receiving competitive salaries. “My plan would treat congressional staff like other federal employees, transitioning them to competitive salaries to attract and retain committed, hard-working public servants from diverse backgrounds,” she said.
Warren is not the first lawmaker hoping to revive the OTA, but is so far the only 2020 presidential candidate to give the effort a voice. Congressmen Bill Foster and Mark Takana, Democrats of Illinois and California, respectively, introduced a resolution last year to reinstate the agency. Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat of Oregon, introduced a companion bill in the Senate.
“If Congress is to do its job, and counterbalance the executive, it has to know what it’s talking about,” Barry Lynn, executive director of the Open Markets Institute, said last year of the lawmakers’ efforts. “This is especially true in today’s era of platform monopoly and AI. A new Office of Technology Assessment would help members from both parties to understand and address some of the most pressing challenges in our society.”