Congress May Revive Geek Squad Amid Technology Challenges
- Gingrich opposes revival of tech office he shuttered in 1995
- Former speaker suggests Google better way to get up to speed
A dedicated team of congressional technology experts seemed dispensable to new Speaker Newt Gingrich back in 1995, when he killed the Office of Technology Assessment to show he was serious about cutting unnecessary spending.
Times and control of Congress have changed and lawmakers now say they’re in need of some technical help.
Stung by criticism of their oversight of the high-tech industry and concerned about mounting cyber attacks against their own offices, lawmakers are taking steps to bring back their in-house geek squad.
The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday voted 28-22 for fiscal 2020 Legislative Branch spending legislation that would provide $6 million to the OTA. It would be the office’s first funding in almost a quarter of a century.
Congress is starved for technical expertise, said Legislative Branch Subcommittee Chairman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio). “We need to better understand these huge issues that are coming down the pike,” he said.
Democrats’ effort to strengthen lawmakers’ in-house expertise is gaining the support of some Republicans, including conservatives who want Congress to be able to adequately oversee technological developments on everything from artificial Intelligence to autonomous vehicles.
Gingrich, however, dismissed the revival of the office as “recreating an obsolete model” that won’t compensate for the failure of lawmakers to get up to speed on new technologies. He said lawmakers have a more efficient way of obtaining information.
“I can go on Google and other search mechanisms and I can do more work today in a half hour than I could do as a grad student in a week,” he said in a telephone interview from Rome, where his wife, Callista, is ambassador to the Vatican.
Gingrich said the existence of OTA kept members from going to more authoritative sources such as the National Academy of Sciences.
“Bureaucrats write bureaucratically and you don’t learn as much as when you go to the original source,” Gingrich said.
Another former Republican congressman, Tom Davis (Va.), said lawmakers need more resources to deal with increased challenges that include security breaches linked to China.
“Congress has become pretty feckless right now,” said Davis, a former chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. “They ought to make sure they have the expertise to be an effective branch.”
The startup funding for the technology office contained in the $3.94 billion Legislative Branch appropriations bill reflects bipartisan discussions over the last year. The full House plans to take up the spending bill by June.
The technology office was established in 1972 when Congress was primarily a pen-and-paper operation. It provided technical analyses for lawmakers until 1995, when Republicans took control of the House after four decades in the minority. At its peak, the office received $22 million. Even though Congress defunded the office, the law that authorized its creation remained on the books.
In justifying the office’s revival, the Appropriations Committee said Congress needs help on issues such as artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, cryptocurrencies, gene editing, “and the ever-expanding use of social media platforms.”
The OTA may be structured much as it was before it was disbanded, according to an aide to Ryan. The office was led by a Technology Assessment Board with six lawmakers from the House and six from the Senate, split evenly between the parties. An executive director oversaw a staff of fewer than 30 professionals. It also had a technology assessment advisory council that included representatives from leading universities and some industries, including coal and chemical companies.
In its next iteration, the technology office could function much differently, said Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), formerly a member of the Science, Space and Technology Committee. A goal, he said, is to avoid politicization and appearances of bias. “We’re going to have to build credibility and common ground,” Takano said.
A modern office may expand its outreach to other sectors and include community and public health groups, said Michael Halpern, deputy director for science and democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Eventually we should be moving to a more decentralized model of science advice where members of Congress have more access to universities in their districts,” Halpern said.
There’s also interest in reviving the agency in the Senate, which will take up its Legislative Branch bill later this summer.
“There’s a very obvious and significant deficiency of expertise in the Legislative Branch and on science and technology issues in particular,” said Zach Graves, head of policy at the Lincoln Network, a conservative group which promotes technology. “You can see that in recent hearings with Mark Zuckerberg,” he said, referring to the chief executive officer of Facebook Inc.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said he’s working on a bill with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) to create an updated technology office.
“We’re working on it but we haven’t gotten any agreement on it yet,” Tillis said in an interview.
The only current member of Congress who served on the agency’s Technology Assessment Board isn’t interested in an OTA revival.
“If we’ve gone this long without it why bring it back?” said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who served on the panel six or more years before it was disbanded.
During Thursday’s meeting, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (Wash.) suggested slowing the process down while waiting for a budget cap deal with the Trump administration to give the panel more money. Also still coming, she said, are the results, due in September, of a study on the OTA’s potential role.
“We’re creating a whole new office before the National Association of Public Administration recommendations are even back,” she said.
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