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FYI Number 76: June 18, 2001

Holt Sponsors Bill to Reestablish Office of Technology Assessment

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
(301) 209-3095

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