Once upon a time – before the tenures of most of its members began – Congress had inside help in understanding tech-related issues before members were asked to vote on legislation that could prove crucial to their further development.
A group of House members – Reps. Bill Foster, D-Ill., Mark Takano, D-Calif., Sean Casten, D-Ill., and Don Beyer, D-Va. – reintroduced legislation on Feb. 2 that would recreate that same level of informational and analytical assistance they maintain is vital to members of Congress getting a better handle on tech issues including in the burgeoning legislative arena of cybersecurity.
Their latest bill – the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) Improvement and Enhancement Act – would reactivate the long-moribund OTA, and make it more responsive to the needs of members of Congress.
The OTA was created in 1972 to educate members on tech issues, but was effectively shuttered in 1995 when its operations were defunded. While it hasn’t issued an official report since before most people owned cell phones, the OTA continues to exist in Federal statute, and the House members’ latest bill aims to help restart the office’s operations.
The House bill would, among other provisions, ensure that expert analysis on technology issues is provided expediently to members of Congress by adding Congressional Research Service-style deliverables to OTA’s function and duties, and requiring preliminary findings of ongoing technology assessments in addition to completed reports.
The legislation also aims to serve all members of Congress by ensuring that OTA’s Technology Assessment Board considers all assessment requests, that board appointments are made on a bipartisan basis, and that OTA provides more transparency to its assessment processes.
The bill also would institute a rotational program for OTA to hire experts from academia and industry in order to maintain a rigorous approach to assessments and reviews.
Tech Education for Congress
“For years, Congress has not been adequately prepared to engage with complex technical issues that are increasingly important to the legislation we consider,” Rep. Foster said in a press release. “[It’s] never been more important for members of Congress to have access to expert, forward-looking, non-partisan technical expertise and advice. That’s why I’m proud to help lead the effort to revive the OTA and bring Congress into the 21st century.”
Similar legislation was first introduced by Rep. Takano back in 2019 to rename and revive the functions and duties of the OTA.
“For more than two decades, the Office of Technology Assessment provided relevant, unbiased, technical, and scientific assessments for Members of Congress and their staff,” Rep. Takano said. “As emerging technologies become increasingly more utilized, it’s more important than ever to ensure that [we] revive, preserve, and support the OTA” to help Congress deal more effectively with current and future tech issues, the congressman said.
Tech issues central to the lives of citizens have never been more numerous – a short list of current ones would feature cybersecurity, data privacy, AI and related ethical concerns, facial recognition, and quantum computing.
“Reconstituting OTA would provide the Legislative Branch with a crucial internal source of expertise and counsel,” said Rep. Beyer. “Our bill would restore and update this key resource and bolster Congress’ independence and knowledge in a key area for years to come.”
“Each of us who serve in Congress brings a unique perspective and expertise which informs how we serve our constituents,” said Rep. Casten. “I am confident of my ability to evaluate energy technologies and their impact on our economy and environment, but I cannot claim expertise on cybersecurity or gene-drive technologies.”
“How many technologies with truly revolutionary potential have failed to fund in favor of less useful dead ends,” he asked. “The Office of Technology Assessment Improvement and Enhancement Act will ensure we’re prepared to tackle the technological challenges of the future.”