Another Physicist Congressman Attempts to Revive the Office of Technology Assessment

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Rep. Bill Foster follows in the footsteps of a previous Ph.D. physicist-turned-politician, former Rep. Rush Holt, by leading another effort to reestablish the long-mourned Office of Technology Assessment.

On Dec. 11, Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) and 14 other members of Congress — including two Republicans, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) — sent a letter to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) asking him to reinstate funding for the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). In doing so, Foster is perhaps starting a tradition of physicists-turned-politicians attempting to revive the long-mourned OTA, a legislative support agency that provided policy advice to Congress on scientific and technological issues. Previous efforts were led by another Ph.D. physicist and former Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), now CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Congress established OTA in 1972 to serve as a source of independent advice on technical subjects, in part to avoid relying on federal agencies for such information. During its 22 years of existence, OTA staff produced approximately 750 reports on subjects ranging from manufacturing automation to high-temperature superconductivity to health care reform. At the end of its lifespan, OTA had approximately 200 staff and an annual budget of $22 million.

Although OTA had developed a reputation for producing authoritative reports, a Republican-controlled Congress led by Speaker Newt Gingrich defunded OTA in 1995 in a move branded as a cost-cutting measure. However, some argue that the agency was eliminated because it had drawn the ire of certain congressmen who perceived some of its analyses as partisan. One of the more controversial OTA reports was a 1984 analysis of the technical feasibility of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) — penned by physicist and now Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter — which criticized aspects of the program. OTA went on to conduct two more studies of the SDI (in 1985 and 1988) which also raised doubts about the program’s feasibility.

During his 16-year tenure in Congress, Holt tried multiple times to restore funding to OTA. His initial efforts included two attempts to secure a $20 million annual appropriation for OTA via legislation in 2001 and 2003. Although both bills had over 60 cosponsors including members of both parties, neither was ever voted on. Holt later tried again via floor amendments in 2011 and 2014, this time seeking only $2.5 million.

In 2006, the House Science Committee held a hearing to examine the state of science and technology advice for Congress. Discussion in the hearing revisited prior arguments raised against OTA including that its analyses were not timely enough for Congress’s needs and that other organizations such as the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Congressional Research Service, or the National Academies could take on some or all of OTA’s functions.

Holt argued that time had shown that these agencies had not adequately stepped in to fill the void left by OTA’s departure. However, the hearing also revealed that not all physicist congressmen are necessarily champions of OTA. Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI), the first physicist elected to Congress, expressed his tepid opinion of the agency, saying that since its closure, "we have made due, not particularly well, but not particularly badly either."

Although debate on reviving OTA remained stalled, in 2007 Congress directed GAO to formally establish a technology assessment capability. Since then, GAO has produced eight technology assessment reports on topics such as climate engineering, neutron detectors, and nanomanufacturing. GAO conducted some of these studies with assistance from the National Academies.

During the floor debate on his last attempt to revive OTA in 2014, Holt made a passionate plea based on cost-effectiveness:

For almost a quarter of a century, the OTA was one of the most respected, productive, cost-efficient agencies we have seen. ... It prevented decisions made in ignorance, and ignorance is expensive. ...

What we are talking about here is finding the low-hanging fruit on making government more efficient. That is what the OTA did. That is what the OTA would do. This is the last Legislative Branch appropriations I will be dealing with. I know the OTA. I worked as a staffer on Capitol Hill. I saw that it works. I saw how much it elevated the debate here on Capitol Hill. It saves taxpayer money. I urge a ‘yes’ vote

His amendment failed by a vote of 164 to 248, with 9 Republicans voting yes and 31 Democrats voting no. Returning to the present day, Foster has used language similar to that used by Holt in the past. In remarking on his letter to Speaker Ryan, Foster argued that OTA would help to rationalize Congress’s responses to technical matters:

So much of what we consider before Congress today has complex, technical components that deserve complex, technical analyses. We may have deep philosophical differences over issues, and that debate is important, but if we’re not starting on sound technical and scientific footing, then it’s all just tilting at windmills. Restoring the Office of Technology Assessment will bring a much needed dose of logic and reason to Congress.

It is unclear whether Foster’s attempt to resurrect OTA will gain any traction in the current Congress. Although Speaker Ryan has not made any public comments on Foster’s letter, his record suggests that he might not be receptive to the request. He was not a cosponsor on either of Holt’s bills to reestablish OTA, and he voted against Holt’s 2011 and 2014 floor amendments.

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