Few Americans have heard of the
Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). It was created by Congress
in 1972 and became the fourth congressional support agency. It was designed to
provide the House and Senate with independent, nonpartisan and thorough
analysis of complex technical issues and policy options for addressing them.
I was a proud member of the senior
OTA staff for 12 years. In 1995 under pressure from the pompous and nefarious
Newt Gingrich the small agency was defunded. There is now bipartisan interest
among some members of Congress to reinstitute OTA. And that is a wonderful idea
that all those hoping to see improved congressional behavior and policymaking
First, it is important to
understand why conservatives wiped out OTA. It had a budget of about $22
million out of roughly $2 billion in annual expenditures for all congressional
activities. Obviously, it was not about a major budget cutting objective. What
conservatives hated about OTA was its true independence from congressional
manipulation. Even more than the General Accountability Office, the
Congressional Budget Office, and the Congressional Research Service, whose
budgets were cut, OTA was designed to seek all perspectives on difficult and
contentious issues and all of its results were openly published, except for a
very few works that involved secret military information. Members of Congress
might delay publication or put their own spin on OTA report findings, but they
could not prevent release of OTA findings and reports.
What Congress received from OTA
represented the best thinking not only of OTA�s own subject matter experts that
included many experienced Ph.D.s, but also the full range of experts in
universities, think tanks, government and industry. Moreover, OTA staff
routinely provided members and their staffs with fast turn-around technical
assistance. We were like adjunct staff to members. Like others, I helped
members design hearings on technical subjects, respond to their constituents
for technical help, draft legislation, and testified about 50 times before
Senate and House hearings in D.C. and in field hearings. A balanced, bipartisan
board of senators and representatives provided oversight of OTA.
The army of industry lobbyists
also had access to OTA staff and provided inputs. But conservatives wanted
more. Gingrich wanted to silence this marvelous independent voice about all
things scientific and technological. He wanted to create even more
opportunities for special interest, bought-and-paid-for lobbyists to steer
congressional thinking, oversight and legislation.
For first hand understanding of
what OTA did, you can access its reports at the OTA Legacy. With a staff of just
200, two-thirds of which were professional research staff, it produced over 750
reports in its 23 years of existence.The
scope and breadth of OTA�s work was mind-boggling, and the remaining
congressional support agencies have not replicated the depth of its work and
the outreach of its staff.
How amazing that at a time in
history when government policy has had to address more and more terribly
sophisticated and contentious technical issues, Congress lost this precious
national resource. And make no mistake about OTA�s very positive impacts. Its
work guided legislation, improved congressional oversight of agency activities,
and helped reduce wasteful federal spending. Just as important, OTA informed
Congress about issues likely to become important in the future so members could
anticipate and act proactively.
Ironically, many nations sent
people to visit and examine OTA and then established their own versions of this
unique technology assessment agency that they still rely on. The abolishment of
OTA by Gingrich was viewed with amazement and chagrin worldwide.
Please write you senators and
representatives in support of providing new funding for OTA that still legally
exists on paper at least. Yes, there is too much wasteful federal spending. But
OTA is a compelling case; the public would benefit enormously by the relatively
small funding for OTA. The shame of conservative Republicans has been exposed
in recent times because of their corrupt activities and reckless pro-industry
spending. This should help people understand why Gingrich got rid of OTA. Now
is the time to tell Congress to reinstitute OTA. OTA stood for truth and
integrity, for good science and good thinking, for consideration of all
relevant policy options, free from partisan biases. Members of Congress need
such input. They need help in overseeing the many federal agencies that spend
vast sums on scientific and technological projects. The president receives
technical advice through the White House Office of Science and Technology
Policy as well as from countless federal agencies, and Congress requires its
Clearly, Gingrich wanted to
eliminate good science and objective thinking from policymaking and George W.
Bush has carried on that mindset. Worse, he has taken it to new outrageous
levels by purposefully distorting and manipulating scientific information from
federal employees. Enough is enough.
Spend a few minutes looking into
OTA and then right the wrong by telling your senators and representatives that
you want OTA reestablished. Bringing back OTA would demonstrate the integrity
of the Democrats now running Congress. OTA was a very brainy outfit, and today
restoring it is a true no-brainer.
Joel S. Hirschhorn�s new book is �Delusional
Democracy -- Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the
Government.� He can be reached through www.delusionaldemocracy.com.