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American competitiveness requires a smarter Congress

Increasing science and technology advice would be an important first step

As technological innovations rapidly reshape the American economy, it’s time Congress took notice and brought itself up to speed, Grumet and Johnson write. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
As technological innovations rapidly reshape the American economy, it’s time Congress took notice and brought itself up to speed, Grumet and Johnson write. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — Technological advancements are rapidly changing the American economy and workforce. At the same time, lawmakers increasingly appear to lack the capability to understand and respond effectively to this transformation. Flip phone-wielding lawmakers may have been cutting edge in the 1990s, but not in today’s Congress, which routinely grapples with complex scientific and technological issues such as gene editing, cryptocurrency, facial recognition and digital privacy. Not to mention, they must oversee $150 billion in federal R&D funding that helps fuel future innovations.

Out of 541 members, the current Congress has only two scientists and eleven engineers. Most have backgrounds in law or business, which is obvious when hearings start to get technical. This gap has to be filled by congressional staff and support agencies. Yet only 15 percent of senior congressional aides themselves think staff have the knowledge, skills and abilities to support members’ official duties. And just 24 percent think staff have enough access to high-quality, nonpartisan expertise within the legislative branch, according to a 2017 survey.

Earlier this month, a congressionally directed report identified gaps in science and technology expertise and capacity on Capitol Hill. The report recommends Congress significantly ramp up its technical expertise on committees, and at support agencies like the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service. A recent study by Harvard’s Belfer Center came to a similar conclusion, finding that “Congress has not shown that it has the necessary capacity and expertise to fully exercise its constitutional duties … [and] has appeared unprepared to reckon with emerging technologies and their effects on society.”

Thankfully, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are growing increasingly aware of what they don’t know. In April, the House Appropriations Committee moved to restart the Office of Technology Assessment, an in-house technical congressional think tank that existed from 1974 to 1995. The OTA provided a unique kind of expertise through multidisciplinary, peer-reviewed “technology assessments” that empowered Congress with better information about the consequences of different policy approaches.

The OTA was defunded in 1995, falling victim to a series of cuts as part of the new Republican majority’s effort to downsize government. As a result, Congress’ institutional capacity was crippled. Despite the increasing technical complexity of the issues it faces, Congress now has nearly 40 percent fewer committee and agency staff than it did in 1989, when the World Wide Web was invented. It has also increasingly shifted hiring priorities in personal offices from policy to communications and constituent engagement. This gap has left Congress increasingly unable to find any ground between inaction and impulsive reaction, an outcome that serves no one’s interest.

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While the fiscal 2020 Legislative Branch appropriations bill has not been finalized, there are additional signs of support for the OTA. The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress issued a unanimous and bipartisan recommendation to modernize and revive the agency. Further, bipartisan, bicameral legislation was introduced in September to accomplish this. There have also been efforts within GAO to bolster its science and technology capabilities, leading to the creation of the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team, as well as a new Center for Strategic Foresight.

Restoring Congress’ foresight and analytical capabilities would be an important step toward reestablishing the institution’s place as the “first branch.” Both GAO and OTA were designed to serve the major policy priorities of committees, and thus offer a high return on investment per dollar spent for taxpayers. Nonetheless, it’s not the only upgrade needed. Congress also needs more technical staff in personal offices, on committees and at CRS. While this capacity may have been a “nice to have” a quarter-century ago, it’s a “must have” now if we’re to confront growing threats to our economic competitiveness and national security at home and abroad.

As technology continues to transform our lives, Congress must play an active role in confronting challenges such as displaced workers or cyber risks, while being careful not to snuff out the overwhelming benefits of technological advancement with inflexible regulatory frameworks. Technological innovations are rapidly reshaping the American economy. It’s time Congress took notice and brought itself up to speed — on a bipartisan basis. By strengthening its capacity to understand these advancements, Congress can restore its working expertise on technical issues and better equip itself to responsibly handle the challenges of the 21st century.

Jason Grumet is president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Garrett Johnson is co-founder and executive director of the Lincoln Network, a conservative tech nonprofit.

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