Bipartisan Effort to Resurrect Office of Technology Assessment Introduced

“As Congress is faced with issues that are more and more technically complex—from cybersecurity to artificial intelligence to quantum computing—it is vital that the Office of Technology Assessment not only be reconstituted, but that it be reformed to meet the demands of the modern Senate.”[/ipw_quote]

Top left to bottom right: Senator Thom Tillis, Senator Mazie Hirono, Rep. Bill Foster, and Rep. Mark Takano

Yesterday, Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Representatives Mark Takano (D-CA) and Bill Foster (D-IL) introduced the Office of Technology Assessment Improvement and Enhancement Act, which if enacted would introduce enhancements to the existing Office of Technology Assessment statute codified at 2 U.S.C. §472. According to the sponsors, this bipartisan legislation would improve and enhance the existing Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) by making it more accessible and responsive to the needs of Members of Congress.

The OTA, which existed for a generation spanning three decades in the 1970s, 80s and into the mid 1990s, became defunct when Republicans took control of Congress after the 1994 midterm elections. A draft funding bill released by House Democrats this spring first showed interest in resurrecting the OTA.

“A revised and reformed Office of Technology Assessment will play a crucial role in helping Congress tackle issues as diverse as data privacy, energy independence, and American innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Senator Tillis. “This bicameral, bipartisan legislation will give Congress the tools, resources, and policy expertise it needs to address the most pressing technological issues facing our country.”

What is the Office of Technology Assessment?

The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) was an office of the U.S. Congress that existed from 1972 until 1995. The purpose of the OTA was to provide Member of Congress and Committees with objective and authoritative analysis of complex scientific and technical issues.

“Until it was defunded in the mid-1990s, the Office of Technology Assessment served the critical function of providing member of Congress with non-partisan, expert advice on technology matters.  As Congress is faced with issues that are more and more technically complex—from cybersecurity to artificial intelligence to quantum computing—it is vital that OTA not only be reconstituted, but that it be reformed to meet the demands of the modern Senate. The Office of Technology Assessment Improvement and Enhancement Act does just that,” Senator Hirono said.

The OTA occupied a unique position within Congress. It could in some ways perhaps be likened to both the General Accounting Office (GAO) or the Congressional Research Service (CRS), but with important differences. The GAO focuses on evaluation of ongoing government programs, and the CRS provides more rapid analysis for Members on legislative initiatives. The OTA was charged with providing deeper, more comprehensive technical analysis.

A Foundation for Good Policy

“The foundation for good policy is accurate and objective analysis, and for more than two decades the OTA set that foundation by providing relevant, unbiased technical and scientific assessments for Members of Congress and staff. Defunding the OTA significantly eroded the technological capacity of this institution, especially as the use of technology became more prominent in our society,” said Rep. Takano. “An improved OTA – the Congressional Office of Technology – would provide Members of Congress with the support they need to be effective legislators; especially as emerging technologies are affecting every aspect of our daily lives. By making it more accessible, responsive, and transparent, these reforms will give Congress the ability to address the technological challenges of the present, and prepare for what’s in store in the future.”

“We live in a world where technology has become increasingly important in our personal lives, workplaces, and to our democracy. From social media’s role in our elections to artificial intelligence and how technology will affect the future of work, Congress is not adequately prepared to engage on technical issues. I’ve been proud to help lead the effort to revive the OTA, and I’m proud to join my colleagues on this legislation to bring the OTA into the 21st Century. This bill will enhance the OTA’s ability to provide quality, nonpartisan policy recommendations on technical issues that affect us now and will continue to impact us in the future,” said Rep. Foster.

Background on the Legislation

The House FY20 Legislative Branch Appropriations bill includes funding to restore the OTA. This is money well-spent that will enable Congress to better address the opportunities and challenges of emerging technologies.

The Office of Technology Assessment Improvement and Enhancement Act would:

  • Provide expertise with quicker turnaround times by:
    • adding language to emphasize that information should be provided as expeditiously, effectively, and efficiently as possible;
    • adding Congressional Research Service-style deliverables to the Office’s function and duties such as providing briefings, informal conversations, and technical assistance to Members on science and technology issues without the need for Board review, as well as objective policy options when requested; and
    • requiring preliminary findings of ongoing technology assessments in addition to completed analyses.
  • Serve all Members of Congress by:
    • enabling any Member to request a technology assessment to be considered by the Technology Assessment Board;
    • updating Board appointment so that members are appointed by bipartisan party leadership in each chamber;
    • directing the Office to be as open and transparent with Members about the request review process as possible; and
    • requiring at least one annual Member Day.
  • Enhance transparency by:
    • updating existing language to require final reports of assessments to be made publicly available whenever possible; and
    • requiring an annual report on requests received, assessments completed and ongoing, and other activities.
  • Maintain the Office’s forward-looking and rigorous approach by:
    • introducing a rotator program to hire experts from academia and industry modeled after the rotator program at the National Science Foundation.
  • Complement existing Leg Branch agencies including GAO’s new Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team by:
    • requiring coordination with CRS and GAO to avoid duplication or overlapping activities.



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Join the Discussion

2 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Ternary]
    September 20, 2019 11:18 am

    I used to be an avid consumer/reader of OTA reports in the 1980s. Not that I always agreed, (who does?) but they articulated common understandings of technological and socio-economic issues. This forced Congress to use at least some acknowledged understanding of important technological issues. I am not sure that a re-instated OTA would prevent the nuttier statements of Members of Congress, such as on global warming, but it would allow reasonable Members to refer to at least somewhat established science by a Congressional organization.

    I am all for a re-instatement of OTA, but with an iron-clad statutory requirement for its scientific independence.

    Take a look at an early OTA report on Software, which states:
    “Thus, the limited monopoly granted to authors by copyright and to inventors by patents is a quid-pro-quo arrangement to serve the public interest, rather than a system established primarily to guarantee income to creators.” (see: Computer Software and Intellectual Property.) An easily and conveniently forgotten purpose by the anti-patent crowd.

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    September 20, 2019 10:34 am

    My number one concern would be how in the world would Congress NOT turn this into a spigot of special interest money.