It’s been 21 years since the Republican Congress zeroed out the $20M budget of the Office of Technology Assessment, a casualty of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” that deprived Congress of its principal source of technological expertise.
Even if you accept Gingrich’s view that the US Government needed to be radically shrunk, it’s hard to imagine a stupider decision than jettisoning technology experts on the eve of the 21st century, especially when those experts cost the country less than a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the Congressional budget.
Whenever there’s a debate about climate change, Internet censorship, encryption, or other highly technical subjects, we routinely hear Members of Congress say things like, “I’m no scientist, but…” Whenever you hear that, you should substitute, “I fired all the scientists, so…”
The fact that Congress is flying blind, technologically speaking, explains an awful lot, from climate change denial to the crypto wars to SOPA and the Office of Personnel Management breach.
The OTA was once a jewel in America’s crown, widely studied and duplicated by other governments around the world. The problem was that the OTA was reality-based and reality has a well-known liberal bias. So when Reagan proposed his Star Wars missile shield, the OTA stubbornly refused to say it would work, because it wouldn’t.
This is the structural barrier to rebooting the OTA today. The absence of independent technical experts in Congress gives Reps and Senators cover when they introduce bad policy (which may be good for their campaign funders). They can bring in their own “experts” who’ll testify against renewable energy or vaccination or whatever, and accuse the other side’s experts of “partisanship.”
This is good for both parties, because it lets lawmakers serve their paymasters. But it’s terrible — possibly fatal — for America.
At its peak, the OTA had an annual budget of about $20 million and around 140 permanent staffers who were supplemented when needed by subject-matter experts from outside. All of them together provided detailed research on everything from acid rain and sustainable agriculture to electronic surveillance and anti-ballistic missile programs.
The reports the OTA produced over the years were known for their rigor. “There was a lot of effort to make sure that the reports were really solid and had been vetted,” says Andrew Wyckoff, who managed the OTA’s Information, Telecommunications and Commerce program before the OTA’s demise. The OTA was so revered that the Washington Times once called it “the voice of authority in a city inundated with statistics and technical gobbledygook.” Other countries, such as the Netherlands, even sent representatives to DC to learn how it worked so they could replicate it back home.
There’s another reason lawmakers may not want to resurrect the OTA: A panel of independent experts, producing facts that contradict a lawmaker’s position, make it hard for a politician to deceive and sway the public.
To avoid politicization, the OTA was overseen by a bi-partisan board of 12 lawmakers—drawn equally from both parties in the House and Senate—who decided which projects OTA would tackle. Although the OTA occasionally proposed a research project on its own, the majority were requested by individual lawmakers or congressional committees.