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Lawmakers May Revive Technology Office

The Office of Technology Assessment, the now-defunct legislative branch agency that for more than 20 years helped Members confront scientific issues in crafting policy, could soon get a reboot.

There is talk on Capitol Hill of bringing back the OTA, which closed its doors in September 1995 after then-newly elected Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) cut its funding.

Discussion of how a revitalized OTA could be used took place during recent hearings of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch. Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and ranking member Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) have spoken about possibly reviving the OTA since being named to their positions a few months ago, Wamp said Wednesday.

“We think there is some value in the Office of Technology Assessment,” Wamp said. “The question is if the money can be found to realistically stand it back up, or if it will have to wait.”

Others on Capitol Hill have made the pitch to bring back the OTA, most notably Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who recently proposed re-establishing the office as part of her 10-point plan to restore public confidence in the government. A newly reborn OTA could focus research on issues such as stem cells and the fight against HIV/AIDS, Clinton told a crowd at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire in April.

The Cold War originally prompted the launch of the OTA in 1972, at a time when Congress spent much of its time dealing with nuclear technology and the space race. Many Members wanted a way to get thorough research on scientific issues from outside the executive branch but still within the government itself.

With a staff of 200 employees primarily made up of scientists and researchers with advanced degrees, the OTA created comprehensive reports requested by Congressional committees. Many reports took up to two years to complete and featured extensive data presented in a nonpartisan fashion, similar to reports by the Congressional Research Service or Government Accountability Office.

The agency was governed by the Technology Assessment Board, a bipartisan panel consisting of six Senators and six Representatives who appointed the OTA’s director for a six-year term.

But while the OTA received praise for its detailed, nonpartisan reports, it was accused of being left-leaning and a waste of taxpayer dollars during its 23-year run, according to Adam Keiper, a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who has written about the agency.

“Conservatives and Republicans are naturally wary of OTA, given its record,” Keiper said. “And I don’t think they need to be. I think OTA can be reconstructed.”

To function successfully in Congress today, the OTA would need to change somewhat from how it once functioned, Keiper said. Primarily, the agency must produce its reports faster and do work on more current policy matters, Keiper said.

“A lot of legislators, when it shut down, went on record to say they wouldn’t miss it,” Keiper said. “Others said they didn’t know it existed. … It would need to be more relevant to actual policy disputes that are happening day-to-day.”

The agency could still do those longer-term reports, Keiper said. At its best, the agency listened to a wide range of stakeholders and undertook detailed research, providing material GAO and CRS could not, Keiper added.

“OTA put out hundreds of studies during its brief tenure, and many of them just sat on shelves gathering dust,” Keiper said. “Others affected the legislative process and saved taxpayers money, or gave policymakers a heads up on important issues that are still affecting us today.”

Public discussion of bringing back the OTA most recently took place when Comptroller General David Walker testified before the legislative branch subcommittee last month.

Wamp asked Walker, who heads the GAO, what role his agency has taken in scientific research since OTA was abolished. Walker told the panel that the GAO studies the government’s technology operations once a quarter and said it would save money to expand the office under GAO rather than spend money to bring back the OTA.

But Wamp said Wednesday that it remains up in the air if the agency will make its return to Capitol Hill and that budget costs could play a role. If it does return, it could come back on a “feathered-in schedule,” Wamp added.

“There is support from the scientific community, and frankly some very smart people on the Hill, for standing OTA back up,” Wamp said. “It’s something that I’ve been open to, and we’ve been talking about.”

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