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You have 48 hours to become a tech expert. If only this office could help

Gingrich slashed the Office of Technology Assessment. It’s time to bring it back

When Newt Gingrich wanted to cut the budget back in the 1990s, the lowest-hanging fruit was the Office of Technology Assessment, Moss writes.
When Newt Gingrich wanted to cut the budget back in the 1990s, the lowest-hanging fruit was the Office of Technology Assessment, Moss writes.

OPINION — Silicon Valley loves picking on Washington, D.C., for being inept and slow. But what our friends in the Valley do not acknowledge is that while they can indulge in the “move fast and break things” mantra, when D.C. moves fast and breaks things, precedent is set and Americans suffer for generations.

This is the problem at hand: How do we ensure that our lawmakers — the ones policing Silicon Valley — do so in a measured, thoughtful way instead of crippling emerging industry giants just because Congress can’t keep up with them? As a former staffer who now works at a think tank that focuses on technology policy and capacity issues in Congress, I struggle with this question every day.

I arrived on the Hill in the fall of 2015. As a former English major with legal training — decidedly not a technologist — I found myself suddenly in charge of the House Judiciary portfolio, which at the time was heavily concentrated on technology policy issues. My former boss was also the only House Judiciary Committee member who was also an active member of the techno-libertarian Electronic Frontier Foundation. Fear does not even begin to describe the feeling I had when I first stepped foot in the Longworth House Office Building.

For those who have not worked for a member of the House Judiciary Committee, it is a tough job. Unlike their Senate counterparts, House offices typically have one staffer per committee assignment. And due to the broad jurisdiction of committees, staffers are expected to be an expert on every facet of the law of interest to the chairman. On Tuesday, I needed to be an expert on a narrow and complex issue in patent policy. By Thursday, I needed to be an expert on the Sherman Act.

In addition to subjects arising under the committee’s jurisdiction, staffers are also expected to be familiar with issues of importance to the member’s district. This does not even account for the need to draft legislation and amendments, or to provide vote recommendations for markups and on the floor.

Staffing is not easy, but I would do it again if asked. However, if you asked me the same question a year ago, I would have said “no” without any trepidation. What has changed since then? The revived interest in the defunct Office of Technology Assessment.

The OTA, which wrote objective analysis on complex technology issues, was disbanded in 1995. Academics have many theories on why this happened, the most pervasive of which is that Republicans believed that the left had captured the nonpartisan legislative capacity arm and therefore did away with it. But the most likely answer is that then-Speaker Newt Gingrich wanted to cut the budget, and the lowest-hanging fruit at the time was the little-known OTA.

Unlike the Congressional Research Service, which provides objective policy and legal analysis on a wide range of topics, the OTA was tasked with authoring long-form academic reports on technology issues, which could take years to complete. And because the committee hearing schedule is often influenced by popular topics of the day, the OTA simply could not keep up. Furthermore, many academics have noted that the Government Accountability Office has similar functions, thus seemingly rendering OTA redundant.

But what makes the OTA unique is that it is focused solely on technology policy. And in an age when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg can talk circles around the former attorneys and judges who sit on the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, the staffers in charge of making sure their bosses understand these issues desperately need greater technology capacity from within the legislative branch.

Technology issues are not going away any time soon. It seems like every other day, another Silicon Valley company has moved fast and broken things in a way that jeopardizes consumer trust. Congress has jurisdiction over these issues, but without a dedicated technology research arm, legislative staff are going to have to continue to learn about these complex topics in 48 hours — if they are lucky. And if they can’t learn these issues in time, they will continue to seek out third-party expertise, often in the form of advice from lobbyists.

It’s time that we provide congressional staff with the technology expertise they need. By giving them the tools to do their job, we can empower our legislature to craft better laws.

Sasha Moss is a federal government affairs manager at the R Street Institute, where she handles outreach, coalition-building and event coordination for R Street’s Technology and Innovation team. She previously served as counsel specializing in Judiciary Committee issues with the office of Rep. Blake Farenthold.