Few Americans have heard of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. It was created by Congress in 1972 and became the fourth congressional support agency. It was designed to provide the House and Senate with independent, nonpartisan and thorough analysis of complex technical issues and policy options for addressing them. I was a proud member of the senior OTA staff for 12 years. In 1995 under pressure from the pompous and nefarious Newt Gingrich the small agency was de-funded. There is now bipartisan interest among some members of Congress in reinstituting OTA. And that is a wonderful idea that all those hoping to see improved congressional behavior and policymaking should support.
First, it is important to understand why conservatives wiped out OTA. It had a budget of only about $22 million out of roughly $2 billion in annual expenditures for all congressional activities. Obviously, it was not about a major budget cutting objective. What conservatives hated about OTA was its true independence from congressional manipulation. Even more than the General Accountability Office, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Congressional Research Service, whose budgets were cut, OTA was designed to seek all perspectives on difficult and contentious issues and all of its results were openly published, except for a very few works that involved secret military information. Members of congress might delay publication or put their own spin on OTA report findings, but they could not prevent release of OTA findings and reports.
What Congress received from OTA represented the best thinking not only of OTA’s own subject matter experts that included many experienced Ph.D.s, but also the full range of experts in universities, think tanks, government and industry. Moreover, OTA staff routinely provided members and their staffs with fast turn-around technical assistance. We were like adjunct staff to members. Like others, I helped members design hearings on technical subjects, respond to their constituents for technical help, draft legislation, and testified about 50 times before Senate and House hearings in D.C. and in field hearings. A balanced, bipartisan board of Senators and Representatives provided oversight of OTA.
The army of industry lobbyists also had access to OTA staff and provided inputs. But conservatives wanted more. Gingrich wanted to silence this marvelous independent voice about all things scientific and technological. He wanted to create even more opportunities for special interest, bought-and-paid-for lobbyists to steer congressional thinking, oversight and legislation.
For first hand understanding of what OTA did, you can access its reports at www.wws.princeton.edu/~ota/. With a staff of just 200, two-thirds of which were professional research staff, it produced over 750 reports in its 23 years of existence. The scope and breadth of OTA’s work was mind-boggling, and the remaining congressional support agencies have not replicated the depth of its work and the outreach of its staff. How amazing that at a time in history when government policy has had to address more and more terribly sophisticated and contentious technical issues, Congress lost this precious national resource. And make no mistake about OTA’s very positive impacts. Its work guided legislation, improved congressional oversight of agency activities, and helped reduce wasteful federal spending. Just as important, OTA informed Congress about issues likely to become important in the future so members could anticipate and act proactively.
Ironically, many nations sent people to visit and examine OTA and then established their own versions of this unique technology assessment agency that they still rely on. The abolishment of OTA by Gingrich was viewed with amazement and chagrin worldwide.
Please write you Senators and Representatives in support of providing new funding for OTA that still legally exists on paper at least. Yes, there is too much wasteful federal spending. But OTA is a compelling case; the public would benefit enormously by the relatively small funding for OTA. The shame of conservative Republicans has been exposed in recent times because of their corrupt activities and reckless pro-industry spending. This should help people understand why Gingrich got rid of OTA. Now is the time to tell Congress to reinstitute OTA. OTA stood for truth and integrity, for good science and good thinking, for consideration of all relevant policy options, free from partisan biases. Members of Congress need such input. They need help in overseeing the many federal agencies that spend vast sums on scientific and technological projects. The President receives technical advice through the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as well as from countless federal agencies, and Congress requires its own source.
Clearly, Gingrich wanted to eliminate good science and objective thinking from policymaking and George W. Bush has carried on that mindset. Worse, he has taken it to new outrageous levels by purposefully distorting and manipulating scientific information from federal employees. Enough is enough.
Spend a few minutes looking into OTA and then write the wrong by telling your Senators and Representatives that you want OTA re-established. Bringing back OTA would demonstrate the integrity of the Democrats now running Congress. OTA was a very brainy outfit, and today restoring it is a true no-brainer.