Congress flying blind: Why now is the time to revive the Office of Technology Assessment
Last Sunday, the Trump administration delivered its COVID-19 testing strategy to Congress. The policy, which delegates most responsibility to the states, claims that “existing testing capacity, if properly targeted, is sufficient to contain the outbreak.”
Various experts disagree. Last month, for example, a study released by Harvard University pegged the daily testing need at ten times what the administration recommends—a conclusion that differs by a startling order of magnitude.
So, to whom should Congress listen? Or at the very least, what questions should Congress ask to evaluate such significantly different claims?
In 1995, Congress defunded its Office of Technology Assessment: an internal team of science and technology experts that aided committees and their staff in moments precisely like these. Exclusively in service of Congress, OTA helped the institution to navigate technically complex domains, from nuclear power and bioterrorism to, as it happens, influenza pandemics. OTA gave Congress its own source of internal expertise, helping it to sort through the many competing claims made by industry, academia, and the executive branch—and to question them.
When the Carter administration proposed a novel basing scheme for ballistic missiles, Congress turned to OTA, which found significant risks and uncertainties with the plan. When the Reagan administration declared AIDS its top health priority, OTA found that it was behaving much to the contrary, neglecting to use funds appropriated for public health emergencies. OTA, free of executive influence and captive only to Congress, equipped lawmakers with smart analysis to question executive branch policies and the claims behind them. The result was more informed congressional debate and a check on executive power.
Perhaps now more than ever, Congress requires its own experts.
At a high-profile Senate health committee hearing this May, Congress heard exclusively from a panel of executive branch officials on issues urgent to its lawmaking, from economic recovery to vaccine development; Sen. Mitt Romney voiced frustration with misleading witness claims. Tightening access to information, the White House notified Congress that all members of its Coronavirus Task Force would be barred from testifying absent permission from the President’s chief of staff. Now, with historically low staff capacity, Congress will be responsible for wading through the administration’s latest report, making sense of dizzying epidemiological models on its own.
Each administration, regardless of party, has a habit of fitting science to its priorities. Overreliance on any executive, then, weakens Congress’s policymaking capabilities. Congress should be equipped to do its own math. Momentum has long been building for lawmakers to bring in the nerds, as one group put it, and various options exist for designing a modernized OTA. No matter the new form, any body of experts in exclusive service to Congress will mark needed progress in rebalancing our titled branches.
Congress has been at this crossroads before. As the executive branch ballooned in the postwar period, it amassed an army of experts. Congress, meanwhile, did not. This left the legislature–an ostensibly co-equal branch–at the mercy of executive policymaking. By the 1960s, the executive was negotiating complex arms control treaties with the Soviet Union; promoting controversial supersonic transport investments; and developing novel regulations in response to pollution.
In 1972, Republican Charles Mosher of Ohio complained that Congress was “flying blind… constantly outmanned and outgunned by the expertise of the executive agencies,” and called for experts “entirely responsible to us.” Soon after, Congress authorized an Office of Technology Assessment.
Congress is once again outmanned and outgunned. But it has rearmed itself before, and it can do it again.
Grant Tudor, a Policy Advocate at Protect Democracy, and Justin Warner, a Senior Policy Analyst at the Federal Reserve Board, are the authors of “The Congressional Futures Office: A Modern Model for Science & Technology Expertise in Congress,” a report from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Federal Reserve Board or any U.S. government entity.