The 535 individuals elected to Congress often find themselves addressing complicated challenges like these. Unfortunately, they too often wrestle with these problems without all the information and analysis they need. That was not always true. From 1972 to 1995, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) gave federal lawmakers a commodity harder and harder to find today on Capitol Hill – the facts.
The name OTA might sound hopelessly wonky. But the studies it produced offered Congress real-world options on wide variety of issues, ranging from the financial and environmental risks of offshore drilling to the use of lie detectors in the workplace.
Fifteen years ago, Congress cut all funding for the OTA under the pretext of saving taxpayers money. It was an easy target for an eager Congress that, in retrospect, was pennywise and pound foolish. Zeroing out the OTA only saved about $20 million a year, but over its 23 years of operation, the agency saved taxpayers countless sums by stopping wasteful spending.
The OTA was bipartisan, governed by a board of lawmakers equally divided between the House and Senate and the Democrats and Republicans. It wasn’t unusual for supporters and opponents of a particular policy to cite the same OTA study to make their points.
One OTA study alone saved an estimated $368 million by focusing attention on the way the Social Security Administration was purchasing computer technology. That $368 million would have come close to covering the entire OTA budget over the past 15 years! Since Congress killed OTA, U.S. taxpayers have lost tens of billions on defective technology the government bought, from radiation detectors to virtual border fences.
At a time when partisan gridlock is paralyzing Congress, we need to rectify a 15-year mistake and resurrect the OTA.