Why Congress needs to address technology in the next relief bill

Why Congress needs to address technology in the next relief bill
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The steps toward the next stimulus package have begun in earnest, with signals from the White House and Congress that infrastructure deserves a higher priority in this new round of spending. This bipartisan support will need other voices to enact legislation to expand and improve our energy grid, water systems, and broadband networks. Few will be able to argue that our leaders are operating optimally to meet future demands, given the critical role of infrastructure will play to bring our economy back to life. Such an effort will require a hefty price tag of $1 trillion or more.

One item that must be tucked into relief legislation is the reestablishment of the Office of Technology Assessment. It was extinguished 25 years ago, based on the premise that Congress need not have better expertise when evaluating the technological implications of legislation in its pipeline. The Office of Technology Assessment received $22 million annually at its peak funding. Its defunding was done with a bad sense that even this miniscule amount was still too much to spend to ensure that Congress could remain up to speed on technological developments. The coming era, which was characterized by a technological tsunami in the United States and around the world, has now demonstrated the unmindful nature of this decision.

Congress surely would have been more knowledgeable about technology involved with telework, telehealth, and supply chain operations, all of vital importance in our toolkit to confront the coronavirus, if it had an Office of Technology Assessment today. Hand wringing about the decision to shut it down, however, only looks backward in speculating about previous laws and how to more efficiently spend taxpayer dollars. Congress should now rectify its “penny wise and pound foolish” approach by ensuring that the Office of Technology Assessment is reestablished as soon as possible.

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Any funding allocation still would be tiny, not even at the level of budget rounding errors, yet the payoff would be substantial. How will Congress effectively allocate such massive amounts for infrastructure that require detailed information of the technology that comprises its elements? How will Congress provide meaningful oversight for these funds once they are authorized? Beyond infrastructure, of course, is a broader range of other technology with important implications for national security and global trade. Artificial intelligence and blockchain are two key examples here.

Indeed, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress last year favorably reviewed whether a renewed Office of Technology Assessment would help provide better expertise to lawmakers. But only $6 million was included in a legislative spending bill to do this, and even this amount was not forthcoming. As the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University correctly noted, “Congress does not, in fact, lack a supply of folks trying to give it advice. To the contrary, it is overwhelmed. What it lacks is the ability to sort through it all.” From this perspective, the Office of Technology Assessment should have a reconstituted mission to recognize the value of new further external information about technology, assimilate it, and assist Congress with applying it to legislative outcomes.

The Office of Technology Assessment can deliver the best bang for the buck if it is able to help our lawmakers with the avalanche of information generated by universities, think tanks, nonprofit groups, and the private sector. Some might argue that other government agencies, such as the Congressional Research Service and Government Accountability Office, can assume this role if provided with some additional funding and staff, therefore minimizing the possibility of including duplicative resources.

But these impressive organizations have such a broad range of topics to cover and are designed to generate new research rather than synthesize the best available technology knowledge for Congress. A lean and mean Office of Technology Assessment, funded for an initial period of five years with a sunset provision to make it palatable, would be a far more attractive option. Whatever the price tag, it holds the promise of being the greatest bargain for our nation that any other relief legislation could now include.

Stuart Brotman is a former government official and fellow in digital privacy policy issues with the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars based in Washington.