A push by House Democrats to bring back a defunct congressional agency devoted to technological research is sparking questions about how Congress gets independent scientific information, including on energy and environmental policy.
House Democrats are proposing $6 million in the recent fiscal 2020 Legislative Branch spending bill for reviving the Office of Technology Assessment.
The congressional agency, akin to the Government Accountability Office, maintained a staff of just fewer than 200 scientists and technical experts to provide nonpartisan analysis on science and technology issues to lawmakers from 1973 to 1995.
Supporters say such an agency is needed now more than ever as issues tied to science are becoming more complex and partisan. Over the past generation, they say congressional staffs have shrunk, limiting expertise, even as more partisan think tanks have emerged offering their own takes on science and technology.
"We need this expertise," said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), chairman of the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, who added that bringing back OTA would "help Congress understand technology developments and pave the way for better technology and science policy."
Republican appropriators have been more muted on OTA, not directly opposing it but suggesting more study is needed and that the work might best be done by expanding scientific research at existing congressional agencies like GAO.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), ranking member on the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, said last week she favors waiting for a congressionally mandated report, due this fall from the National Academy of Public Administration, on Congress' science and technology needs, before deciding whether to reestablish OTA.
Herrera Beutler also echoed a long-standing GOP concern over cost, saying "we keep adding, adding, adding" to government.
Nearly 25 years after House conservatives killed OTA as part of their mandate to pare back government, partisan splits remain over the agency.
But there are also signs that some opposition has softened; in some quarters there are now regrets that the organization fell prey to politics, and it may be ready for a comeback.
The GOP revolution
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) led Republicans to control of the House for the first time in four decades in 1994 on a promise of less government.
Conservatives sought to shutter Cabinet agencies, like the Energy and Commerce departments, but ultimately won more modest successes, including defunding OTA in 1995.
Gingrich in an email to E&E News held firm to his view that OTA was not needed and should not be revived. He blasted the agency as a "staff driven bureaucracy made up largely of liberal democrats [that] was giving Congress inadequate and often bad advice."
"There are lots of ways for members to get scientific advice directly from scientists and not from staff," continued Gingrich, noting that any lawmaker can reach out to any Nobel Prize winner in the country.
There are also well-established nonprofit groups like the National Academy of Sciences and its affiliates to offer similar advice, he said.
Former Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pa.), a Gingrich lieutenant and former House Science Committee chairman, said he was less concerned about the quality of OTA's work than that it was not produced in a timely matter.
He said its reports — which could take 18 months to two years, by OTA's own estimates — were often "irrelevant" as lawmakers moved legislation more quickly.
For example, an OTA report on energy issues in the early 1990s came some six months after Congress cleared a sweeping energy bill.
"It would have helped to have had an OTA report that informed that work," said Walker, who added that the report had offered some better policy options than those in the bill that had already become law.
But supporters of OTA point out the large number of reports it produced in 23 years — about 750 — with a staff of fewer than 200 and a $22 million budget in its final year.
Several archives remain online of those reports, including public repositories maintained by Princeton University and the Federation of American Scientists, a testimony to the quality of the research.
Those archives show OTA weighing in on a wide variety of topics, including climate change, electric utility rates, Superfund cleanup, clean energy and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"Just about every issue, including those we are still grappling with today, were dealt with at the time," said Ali Nouri, president of FAS, noting that its reports on acid rain and other contaminants in the 1980s were published well before the Clean Air Act amendments in the early 1990s.
Like many supporters of OTA, Nouri believes it was killed in part for its criticism of Reagan-era defense systems in the mid-1980s.
Regrets and obstacles
Former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), a onetime conservative firebrand who now has become outspoken on climate action, couldn't exactly recall why he made floor speeches opposing OTA in the early 1990s but acknowledged he had been "rather dimwitted on science" back then.
Now, Inglis says, an independent congressional think tank that could weigh in on topics like climate change might serve as a useful counter to denials of global warming coming from the White House.
He's not alone.
In the mid-1990s, Jerry Taylor, president of the libertarian Niskanen Center, was a young staffer at the Cato Institute who worked with then-Senate staffer and future Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on plans for dismantling agencies like OTA.
He said conservatives were "out gunning for it" because they did not like experts disagreeing with their sometimes "dodgy ideas." Taylor says he's now less of an ideologue and is part of a large coalition seeking to revive the technology office.
"If we can add to the resource knowledge of Congress with credible info, then by all means we should do so," said Taylor, who noted that the sharp drop in congressional staff — estimated at about a third over the past few decades — has led to a brain drain of science and technical expertise on Capitol Hill.
Taylor's group is one of more than 50 organizations, including the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity and the American Civil Liberties Union, that recently wrote appropriators to back funding for OTA.
The letter, organized by the technology think tank the Lincoln Network, warns that Congress does not currently have "sufficient capacity to tackle 21st Century science and technology challenges," even if more funding went to GAO.
Former Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), one of the few physicists to serve in Congress who now heads the nonpartisan American Association for the Advancement of Science, first argued nearly 30 years ago on the House floor for reviving OTA.
He said he believes there is more momentum now than there ever has been for bringing it back due to growing concern over scientific facts versus opinions.
"Policy should be made on an understanding of the facts, and OTA can be very helpful in that. Nowadays, it seems to be commonplace for people to treat opinions as if they are facts, so OTA can be helpful in this difficult time," Holt added.
While Democrats should be able to muscle the spending bill with the provision intact through the House, the GOP-controlled Senate will be the real proving ground.
Some supporters say a $6 million appropriation may not draw much interest in a multibillion-dollar spending package; others believe that the GOP Senate does not want to promote scientific independence over conservative views.
Groups like the conservative powerhouse Heritage Foundation remain opposed, arguing that reviving the congressional agency would only further politicize science.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who will have a big role in whether it's funded, said he had not thought much about OTA until being asked about it by E&E News.
"I remember it, the question is, is it needed?" Shelby said. "That's the first question that we need to always ask. If it's needed and it's got merit, we'll evaluate it and go from there."