Can tech-minded lawmakers reverse ‘science lobotomy’?

By Hannah Hess | 03/08/2016 07:20 AM EST

Concerned that Washington, D.C., is failing to keep pace with technological innovation elsewhere, a small cadre of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are trying to persuade their colleagues to restore the Office of Technology Assessment.

Concerned that Washington, D.C., is failing to keep pace with technological innovation elsewhere, a small cadre of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are trying to persuade their colleagues to restore the Office of Technology Assessment.

Since the office was defunded in 1995 as part of the anti-big government Republican surge, supporters have argued that cutting the $20 million annual budget has cost Congress billions in potential policy solutions.

The small congressional agency, with a professional staff of about 140, produced some 750 reports on topics ranging from satellite weapons to solar power to U.S. EPA’s Superfund cleanup program during its 23-year life span.


Work is underway on an amendment aimed at "Reversing the Congressional Science Lobotomy," as former Rep. Rush Holt once wrote in a Wired Science op-ed.

The New Jersey Democrat and physicist, who left Capitol Hill to head the American Association for the Advancement of Science, led the charge during his 16 years in the House to restore OTA funding.

During the fiscal 2015 appropriations process, Holt introduced an amendment to the legislative branch spending bill that would have provided $2.5 million to restart the office. It was defeated by a 248-164 vote.

"We talked for a long time, but couldn’t get it done," Jim Moran, a former House appropriator who served on the panel that oversees congressional support agencies, told E&E Daily. The Virginia Democrat, now working for the law and lobby firm McDermott Will & Emery LLP, said that if this Congress is able to reinstate OTA, "the country will be the beneficiary, because they will pass legislation that is better informed."

But that’s tricky to do in a body that has "kind of politicized science to appeal to some of the folks who, for example, don’t want science interfering with their industries," Moran said. "Particularly in the areas of regulating pollution or toxic spills or whatever, there are always going to be some people who are threatened by science [when it] takes away a conducive environment to generate revenue for their respective industries."

‘Real need’

Among the biggest technology issues facing Congress right now is whether Apple is right to resist a government court order directing the company to hack an iPhone belonging to one of the suspects involved in the 2015 San Bernardino, Calif., shootings.

House Judiciary Committee member Jason Chaffetz seemed to side with Apple CEO Tim Cook during a recent hearing with FBI Director James Comey. The Utah Republican, who has an extensive interest in technology, is also among the 15 members of Congress who signed a letter calling on House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to bring back OTA.

"Almost every issue we face has a technological edge to it," Rep. Bill Foster, who led the effort, told E&E Daily last week. The Illinois Democrat took up the mantle for the cause when Holt retired. As the only member in Congress with a doctorate in science, Foster also inherited an old barometer from Holt’s office to hang on his bright blue office wall.

"Many of these are tremendously smart and well-educated people, but they often lack the technical expertise to evaluate the technical aspects of legislation," Foster said during an interview. There’s a "real need," he urged, "for a source of unbiased technical expertise so when things come up like the encryption of cellphones and cellphone data that you have someone who actually knows the technical details and can help sort through what is technological truth, what is clearly false and what is in the gray area in terms of potential future technologies."

Foster is working with another Democrat who signed the letter, Rep. Mark Takano of California, on an amendment to the fiscal 2017 legislative branch appropriations bill and a letter to the committee in support of OTA.

That spending bill, covering funding for House and Senate offices, has taken deep cuts since Republicans took control of Congress. Lawmakers use the measure as a means to demonstrate their willingness to lead by example in efforts to reduce the federal deficit.

The fiscal fight

OTA backers bring a fiscal argument to the table.

More than 90 organizations, including the Clean Air Task Force, Defenders of Wildlife and Republicans for Environmental Protection, organized with the Union of Concerned Scientists to call on lawmakers to reinstate the nonpartisan office. Since it was cut, "the government has spent billions on new technologies that have not worked as promised," they claim.

In a New York Times opinion piece, Celia Wexler, senior representative at the Center for Science and Democracy, pointed to a 1994 report on the usefulness of technology upgrades at the Social Security Administration that stopped the agency from investing in a $368 million computer program.

"If you look at what the OTA had done in the past, things like the recommendation that we transition to a uniform medical electronic record, had we accepted that, you know probably trillions of dollars of taxpayer money would have been saved and hundreds of people would have had their lives saved through preventable medical errors," Foster said.

However, top appropriators did not see the benefit of spending $2.5 million to revive the office two years ago, when it was last considered.

"I looked at what some of my predecessors in my position had thought, both Republican and Democratic," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) who held the legislative branch spending gavel in 2014, during floor debate. "As [Holt] knows, obviously, the Democrats had the majority after 1995 for a four-year period, which was relatively recently, and they looked at this and came to the same decision that was made in ’95, and that, I think, we make today, which is that there are other sources of information."

Cole pointed to the Government Accountability Office, which developed a capability to do more technology-related investigations.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the top Democrat on the panel, also opposed the amendment. The Florida congresswoman called it "well intended" and said in previous years she had included $2.5 million in the bill for GAO to carry out activities similar in scope to the work of OTA. But she could not support shifting money out of a fund used to revive Capitol Hill’s historic buildings, as Holt suggested.

"What we are talking about here is finding the low-hanging fruit on making government more efficient," Holt argued. "That is what the OTA did. That is what the OTA would do."

Moran said it is hard to say whether the House would be more sympathetic to the amendment under Ryan’s leadership. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) "claimed to have an interest in science and zoology … he was intellectually curious," Moran said. "But he shut it down."

"Some members are not just climate deniers, but kind of averse to becoming apprised of scientific advancements," he added. "But the majority of members want the most expert knowledge available."