Reestablish an improved Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to study and recommend emerging technologies, provide nonpartisan information and policy analysis to Member offices, support legislative branch agencies in their examination of new technologies, focus on general oversight and policy, and facilitate peer reviews of potential new technologies.
At the dawn of a new era of technology, Congress established the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in the Technological Assessment Act of 1972. The OTA was a bicameral, non-partisan service organization (similar to the Congressional Research Service or the Government Accountability Office ), with a narrow mandate to Congress with procurement, security, and technology advice for several decades. The goal of the OTA was to support Congress in developing informed, national technology policy, figuring out what technology updates were necessary and possible—and which ones would be unnecessary expenses of taxpayer dollars. Funding for the OTA was appropriated through the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill from FY1974—FY1996.
However, in response to criticism about the quality of services, political objectivity, cost, and the overall necessity of the OTA, it was defunded and removed from Congress as part of broader 1995 reforms. And while there have been more recent efforts to reinstate the OTA, none have been successful. Committee Members were considerate of these past criticisms, but also acknowledged the reality that congressional technology lags behind the private sector and executive branch. As former Rep. Vic Fazio (CA-4) testified at the Former Members Day hearing on May 1, 2019:
“The Houses should reestablish what was called in the past the Office of Technology Assessment… Technology affects the work of every committee. And perhaps new ways of making a similar institution more responsive to the needs of each committee might allow for its restoration. It is far too obvious that Members are behind the curve on technology. That glaring weakness causes you to lose credibility with an increasingly large number of your constituents.”
Former Rep. Vic Fazio, May 1, 2019
Thus, the Committee re-envisioned the OTA to be more responsive to the needs of Members, cost-effective, efficient, and proactive in addressing the technological needs of Congress. The Committee first, recommends reinstating the OTA but renaming it to the “Congressional Technology and Innovation Lab.” This Lab would be charged with going beyond the mandate of the original OTA, proactively studying and testing new technologies rather than waiting for directives to study technologies, as the former OTA did.
The Committee recommends the Lab employ nonpartisan experts, visiting professors, and graduate students from premier companies, national labs, and institutions across the country. The Lab should work with the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) and HIR to share results with Member, committee, and leadership offices. Not only would the Lab provide fresh, invigorated tech policy analysis and advice, it would lift a great burden off Members and their staff, as well as other support organizations like CRS.
As the remote operating status throughout the COVID-19 pandemic exemplified, Congress has fallen too far behind in its technological needs. Congress needs an objective, in-house agency that will help Members better communicate and serve their constituents.