- Bills seek to bring back the Office of Technology Assessment
- Renamed agency would offer lawmakers resources on tech issues
The effort to revive the long-dormant Office of Technology Assessment picked up momentum Thursday as lawmakers unveiled a plan to boost Congress’s arsenal for maneuvering complex technology issues.
A bipartisan, bicameral bill from Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) would restart the office of technology experts, which has been defunct for more than 20 years, renaming it the Congressional Office of Technology and making other changes.
“We want to shed the baggage of the past and at the same time constitute an office that is going to be forward-looking, that is going to anticipate issues,” Takano said in an interview.
The refreshed congressional agency would fill a much needed gap in tech expertise on Capitol Hill by providing a rapid response resource for lawmakers on the pros and cons of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency and 5G wireless technology.
“Given the challenge that we face from countries like China, who are looking to compete with us on technology, we cannot continue to have this void of planning and void of how we strategically use our resources for research,” Takano said.
The original Office of Technology Assessment was a nonpartisan, bicameral congressional research agency created in 1972 that provided independent studies on complex scientific and technical issues.
It was defunded in 1995 after Republicans took control of both chambers of Congress. Members have called for reviving it in the years since.
“A revised and restored OTA will give Congress these critical resources and will provide much needed help as we tackle issues as diverse as data privacy, energy independence, and American innovation and entrepreneurship,” Tillis said in a statement to Bloomberg Government.
Lawmakers in the current Congress have taken more action to restart OTA than in past sessions. The fiscal 2020 Legislative Branch spending bill (H.R. 2779) approved by the House Appropriations Committee included $6 million in initial funding to revive the OTA. The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress in July also unanimously approved a bipartisan recommendation to restart OTA.
“I think the prospects are good that this is going to happen,” Takano said.
Fast Deliverables on Tech
Takano pointed to the diverse tech issues Congress is facing that a technology office could assist in by providing nonpartisan assessments to educate lawmakers. He listed the perceived and real threats posed by China’s Huawei Technologies Co., as well as blockchain and facial recognition technologies, as ripe for nonpartisan assessments.
Senate hearings with Facebook Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerberg in the spring of 2018 also served to highlight the need for restarting OTA, Takano said.
“That exposed the degree to which senators of varying background and ages seemed unprepared to ask Zuckerberg relevant questions,” he said.
A draft version of the bill would direct the office to:
- Provide information when requested by members of Congress “as expeditiously, effectively and efficiently, as possible;”
- Release deliverables, such as preliminary findings, before issuing draft and final reports;
- Provide technical assistance to members on science and technology related bills; and
- Deliver Congressional Research Service-style findings as well as briefings, informal conversations, and technical assistance.
The governing board of the office would be divided equally between Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate. Any member of Congress could initiate an assessment, which the board would have to approve, trying to fulfill an equal number of requests across parties, Takano said.
Takano said he wants the office’s staff to be able to work on long-term projects that anticipate where “politics, policy and technology are going to collide.” The $6 million appropriated in the Legislative Branch spending bill is a down payment, including for permanent staffing, but Takano would also want rotating staff from industry and academia.
“I think there’s a growing recognition, by Democrats and Republicans, that the lack of capacity on these issues is a problem,” Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, said in an interview.
“Congress is an 18th century institution using 20th century technology to solve 21st century problems,” he said.
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