Effort to Restart Congressional Technology Arm Gains Traction

December 6, 2019
In The News

Congress isn’t quite ready to resurrect a congressional technology assessment office killed off by Republicans in 1995. But the idea may be gaining momentum.

Backers of reopening the Office of Technology Assessment include Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

The House has also included $6 million in seed money to start reopening the OTA—closed in 1995 for ostensible budget reasons—in its fiscal 2020 legislative spending bill in order to help Congress wrestle with technology challenges ranging from climate change to telecommunications.

But hurdles to reopening OTA’s doors after more than two decades were on display at a Dec. 5 House science panel hearing.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), the panel’s top Republican, noted that Congress has since directed the Government Accountability Office to expand its technology assessment capabilities, with the GAO launching a Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team to fill some of that gap in providing technology advice.

Lack of Unbiased Information

But Johnson, the committee chair, said a knowledge gap is still left from the demise of the OTA, which had provided roughly 700 reports on relevant science and technology issues to Congress over the course of its two decades.

“The fact is, much of the information we receive from outside sources comes from individuals or organizations with a particular point of view that we must sort through,” she said, and experts such as GAO are “still far from filling the gap left by the defunding of OTA.”

Johnson noted that her science panel wouldn’t have jurisdiction over legislation to restore the OTA, which would have to go through the Committee on House Administration.

Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.), first elected in 2018, said the debate over restarting the OTA may not be one that resonates with a lot of voters. But he is backing the House bill to reestablish the OTA—H.R. 4426, introduced by Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), which has 42 cosponsors including one Republican, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.).

“I think am the only member of Congress as a freshman who made a campaign promise before getting elected to restore the OTA,” Casten said, before joking: “I’m sure that’s why I won.”

A companion Senate bill introduced by Tillis (S. 2509) has one co-sponsor, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).