Congress sorely needs better expertise in technical areas, a handful of former members of the House agreed during their appearance at a hearing of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress on Wednesday afternoon.
One way to get this? Bring back the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), they said.
“Its time to bring back the Office of Technology Assessment,” Congressman Vic Fazio, who represented California’s third district from 1979 through 1999, said during his prepared remarks. “I think we’ve all been embarrassed by the way Congress fails to understand technology. OTA needs to come back in some form.”
The defunct OTA, which provided members and committees with objective, forward-looking reports on the impacts of science and technology developments, was established in 1972 then defunded and shuttered in 1995.
Other witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing also decried the lack of tech savvy in Congress. “The House should modernize technology and improve the effectiveness of government,” said Tim Roemer, who represented Indiana’s third district until 2003 and was an ambassador to India. “We can’t have staff and members that don’t know how Google and Facebook and WhatsApp and different huge companies operate today.”
Interest in reviving OTA gathered some momentum in the 2020 appropriations process this week as well. A draft of the legislative branch’s spending bill is proposing $6 million in funding to get the office up and running again. How this purse will fare moving forward remains to be seen — past efforts to revive the office have thus far fallen flat.
Wednesday’s hearing was the Modernization Committee’s third since it was established in January, and the second hearing focused on what can be learned from the lessons of the past. In keeping with the committee’s broad mandate, the hearing got into a bunch of other House improvement wish-list items including designing a more productive legislative calendar, better staff pay, bipartisanship and restoring public trust in the institution.
“If we want people to respect this institution, we must begin by respecting this institution,” said Congressman Reid Ribble, who represented Wisconsin’s eighth district from 2011 to 2017.