Congress needs to revive in-house tech office, think tank says

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For Congress to keep up with the pace of technology change, it needs to bring back the shuttered Office of Technology Assessment, a Washington, D.C., the R Street Institute argues in a new report.

Recreating OTA is crucial because Congress direly needs the in-house expertise and in-depth research functions that the office formerly provided, argue Kevin Kosar, the institute’s vice president of policy, and Zachary Graves, its director of technology and innovation policy, in a new study.

Times have changed drastically since OTA was first created in 1972 as an expert adviser agency that served as a think tank within Congress, providing technology assessments to assist in the crafting of legal frameworks for new technology. Now, a majority of the population has a smartphone or access to internet, so it’s more important than ever for Congress to bolster its technology policy knowledge by reviving OTA, Graves and Kosar write.

Since the agency was cut in 1995, policymakers have struggled to understand and create laws around new technology, the authors say. The new Republican majority that came into power after the 1994 elections dismantled the OTA.

“The loss of this capability is becoming rapidly evident as we find the First Branch less prepared than ever to shape a regulatory environment that has hitherto allowed America to lead the world in technological innovation,” Kosar said in a statement.

And even though Congress has a variety of offices that serve in a similar advisory capacity to what OTA once did — like the Congressional Budget Office, the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office — those offices have also diminished in their size and tech savvy, the report says.

Graves and Kosar believe it wouldn’t cost much to bring back the office. In 1995, OTA had budget of $22 million, which even then was only a tiny fraction of the federal budget. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., is cited in the report as saying $2.5 million could get OTA started again in the 21st century.

But despite the low estimated cost to bring the agency back, Republicans have pushed back on the idea as a liberal entity with a Democratic agenda, according to Graves and Kosar. They said, however, this would be easily solved since the current speaker of the House would choose the board members, evenly representing both parties.

“Let me be blunt here: Failing to augment Congress’ technological expertise ensures that the preferences of executive branch agencies and private interests hold the greatest sway in technology policy decisions, to the detriment of the public interest,” Graves said. “To address this, Congress needs to bring back its nerds. And fast.”

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Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, R Street Institute