With a bill consisting of twenty lines of text, Rep. Rush Holt has
called for the reestablishment of the congressional Office of Technology
Assessment. Holt, a Democrat representing New Jersey's 12th District,
was the former assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory
and an American Physical Society Congressional Science Fellow.
The Office of Technology Assessment, established in 1972, provided
Congress with carefully crafted reports on a wide variety of subjects.
Housed in an office building located several blocks from the Capitol,
OTA had a staff of just under 200 with a budget of almost $22 million
when it was put out of business. The staff and outside experts produced
about 50 reports per year, and served as frequent congressional witnesses.
When Republicans took control of the House and Senate in 1995 they
were determined to reduce government spending. Hoping to set an example
of how they could do so with their own $2.4 billion legislative budget,
OTA was marked for elimination as a component of a $200 million reduction
package for the FY 1996 appropriations bill. Following a very controversial
series of votes on the House floor, Members agreed by a vote of 220
to 204 to retain OTA with $15 million in funding.
However, as the appropriations hearings revealed, OTA had its critics.
They charged that OTA studies were and could be performed elsewhere,
were sometimes not strictly on technological subjects, and took too
long to complete. While OTA pledged to change some of its methods, termination
of its functions came later that year when the final legislative branch
appropriations bill failed to include money for OTA operations. The
Senate had voted 54 to 45 against a plan to retain OTA, and the House
went along in the final bill. The Senate action came despite support
for OTA ranging from Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to Senator Edward Kennedy
(D-MA) for a plan that would have preserved OTA's functions as part
of a new Office of Congressional Services.
There has been renewed interest in OTA. For example, a policy magazine
had a lengthy article about it earlier this year. Yet critics remain:
when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich appeared at a policy symposium
a few weeks ago he was asked if he regretted the decision to close the
office; he replied that he thought it was the right action because of
OTA's operating style.
The move to resurrect OTA has now moved from discussion to legislation.
The Holt bill, H.R. 2148, reestablishes OTA by authorizing an appropriation
of $20 million per year for the period FY 2002 through 2007. The bill
has 32 cosponsors, including House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood
Boehlert (R-NY). In explaining his decision, Holt stated, "Nearly
every policy question before Congress has significant technological
components. Impartial, credible analysis and advice from OTA will help
Congress make better decisions for years to come. This will be a wise
investment in our future."
Richard M. Jones
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics