Why Congress Needs to Revive Its Tech Support Team

Congress is finally turning its attention to Silicon Valley. And it’s not hard to understand why: Technology impinges upon every part of our civic sphere. We’ve got police using AI to determine which neighborhoods to patrol, Facebook filtering the news, and automation eroding the job market. Smart policy could help society adapt.

But to tackle these issues, congressfolk will first have to understand them. It’s cringe-inducing to have senators like Orrin Hatch seem unaware that Facebook makes money from ads. Our legislators need help. They need a gang of smart, informed nerds in their corner.

Which means it’s time to reboot the Office of Technology Assessment.

You’ve likely never heard of it, but the OTA truly rocked. It was Capitol Hill’s original brain trust on tech. Congress established the office in 1972, the year of Pong, when it realized the application of technology was becoming “extensive, pervasive, and critical.” The OTA was staffed with several hundred nonpartisan propellerheads who studied emerging science and tech. Every year they’d write numerous clear, detailed reports—What happens if Detroit gets hit with an atom bomb? What’ll be the impact of automation?—and they were on call to help any congressperson.

It worked admirably. Its reports helped save money and lives: The OTA found that expanding Medicaid to all pregnant women in poverty would lower the cost of treatment for low birth weight babies by as much as $30,000 per birth. It pointed out the huge upsides of paying for rural broadband, and of preparing for climate change. With a budget of only $20 million a year, the little agency had an outsize impact.

Alas, the OTA was doomed by the very clarity of its insight. It concluded that Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense wouldn’t work—which annoyed some Republicans. In 1995, when Newt Gingrich embarked on his mission of reducing government spending, the low-profile agency got the chop, at precisely the wrong time: Congress defunded its tech adviser just as life was about to be utterly transfigured by the internet, mobile phones, social networking, and AI. Nice work, guys!

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Today, Washingtonians of different stripes are calling for a reboot. “When you drag Mark Zuckerberg in, and you want to ask the really hard questions, this would put you in a better position,” says Zach Graves, a senior fellow at the free-market think tank R Street. Democratic Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wants the OTA back too, given the whipsaw pace of new tech arrivals.

Technically, it’d be easy to restart the OTA. Congress didn’t abolish it, but merely took away its funding. This spring, US representative Bill Foster (D-Illinois) introduced a resolution to reopen the spigot.

That would still need votes though. You’d need agreement that expert consensus on scientific facts is important—and, alas, I’m not sure it’s there. Anti-science thinking is running amok in the political sphere. Some of it’s from liberals (hello, Hollywood antivaxxers!), but the lion’s share resides in right-wing orthodoxy, which is too often hostile to the idea of scientific evidence, especially if it suggests we should stop burning fossil fuels. In a saner age, the OTA would be a no-brainer. Now I’m not so sure.

Still, Foster is hopeful. In the old days, the OTA had some Republican champions, and it still could today, he tells me. “They understand the economic importance of having high-quality technical advice.”

My fingers are crossed. In 1985, OTA researchers observed: “America has become an information society.” It would be nice if we could also be an informed one.


This article appears in the July issue. Subscribe now.


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