Dems push to revive Congress' tech office

Dems push to revive Congress' tech office
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House Democrats are pushing to revive funding for a nonpartisan agency intended to better inform lawmakers about technology.

At issue is the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which was created by Congress in 1972 but closed its doors in 1995 after the then GOP-controlled House cut its funding.

The agency provided lawmakers and staffers with expertise on science and technology issues relevant to legislation and public policy, including the areas of intellectual property, technological change, and climate.

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The debate over the agency is back in the spotlight after a House Appropriations subcommittee voted on Thursday to designate $6 million to the agency for “necessary expenses” in the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act for fiscal 2020.

Democrats say there is a new urgency for the agency, as lawmakers tackle a host of complicated technology issues. But Republicans are wary of reopening the agency, arguing that other departments can carry out those tasks without "duplication."

A spokesperson for Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John RyanDemocratic candidates face hard choices as 2020 field winnows The Hill's 12:30 Report: Stocks sink as Trump fights with Fed, China The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch MORE (D-Ohio), the chairman of the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee and a 2020 candidate, told The Hill that Ryan received requests from almost 50 House Democrats to fund the OTA, but none from any Republicans.

House Democrats have been pushing their case to bring back the OTA.

Reps. Mark TakanoMark Allan TakanoCollege should profit students and taxpayers — even at for-profit schools Lawmakers urge DNC to name Asian American debate moderator Steyer group targeting 12 congressional Democrats over impeachment MORE (D-Calif.) and Sean CastenSean CastenEx-GOP Rep. Roskam joins lobbying firm The House Democrats who voted to kill impeachment effort House votes to kill impeachment effort against Trump MORE (D-Ill.) in a recent opinion piece for Techdirt, argued in favor of OTA funding, writing that “Americans are starting to take notice of the lack of effective lawmaking following some of the biggest technology scandals in recent times.”

“Without the OTA’s forward-thinking approach, Congress’ ability to address the technological challenges of the present, and of the future, will fall short of what effective lawmaking during the ever-evolving digital age demands,” Casten and Takano wrote. “A well-funded agency whose sole purpose is advising Congress on technology issues, free from the influence of corporate and special interests, is absolutely necessary.”

Takano told The Hill this week that he is “delighted” that funding for the OTA was included in the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill, describing the funding level as a “medium step, not a small step” by Congress.

“I know there are a number of members within my Democratic caucus that are thrilled with this, but I also know there are a number of Republicans who think this is a really important idea,” Takano said.

“A lot of Republicans are nodding their heads, none of them were saying this is a horrible thing or looking to trash talk it," he added. My hope is we get through the House Appropriations process, and we see this step.”

A spokesperson for Casten told The Hill that the congressman “hopes the office will begin to provide the kind of technical support needed by Members to better legislate on a range of issues including cutting-edge technological advancement and the rapidly changing cyber landscape.”

One tech area Congress has been focused on in recent months is online and data privacy.

Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaKing incites furor with abortion, rape and incest remarks San Jose mayor proposes mandatory liability insurance for gun owners Democrats give cold shoulder to Warren wealth tax MORE (D-Calif.)  told The Hill this week that when it comes to privacy and other tech topics, “you have some lawmakers who don’t know the difference between an iPhone and Google, it makes it hard.”

Daniel Schuman, the policy director of Demand Progress, told The Hill on Friday that OTA’s “job is to put together unbiased science and tech advice for Congress.” and funding it could ensure congressional policies on tech and cyber issues “would be better.”

However, the idea has received a lukewarm reception from House and Senate Republicans.

A spokesperson for House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee Ranking Member Jaime Herrera BeutlerJaime Lynn Herrera BeutlerDems push to revive Congress' tech office Bill allowing Congress to hire Dreamers advances House fails to override Trump veto on border wall MORE (R-Wash) told The Hill that Herrera Beutler is “concerned the effort to bring back Office of Technology Assessment may be premature.”

The spokesperson pointed to a congressionally directed study by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) that is still underway, which is meant to determine whether funding the OTA would “duplicate services” already available to members of Congress. In particular, the study is examining how services that would be offered by the OTA compare to those offered by the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) Office of Technology Assessment.

Herrera Beutler did support the appropriation of $15 million in the Legislative Branch 2020 funding bill to “strengthen the GAO’s technology assessment function in order to sufficiently assess technology matters for Congress,” according to her spokesperson.

Schuman, however, disagreed that the GAO’s office would be sufficient to provide technical expertise for Congress. Schuman described the GAO office as providing “oversight and a retrospective view,” while the OTA would be “about foresight and how to plan and adjust accordingly” on tech policy.

Schuman also pointed to any division over re-funding the OTA as not being so much about a party split, but more of a “chamber split,” with the Senate not as enthusiastic over the idea.

On that side of Capitol Hill, Sens. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) and Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyRepublicans suffer whiplash from Trump's erratic week Murphy: Chance of deal on gun background checks bill 'less than 50-50' Murphy says White House still interested in improving background checks MORE (D-Conn.) lead the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over funding the OTA. Representatives for the senators told The Hill that both Hyde-Smith and Murphy are awaiting the outcome of the NAPA report before making a decision on OTA funds.

Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordGOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads Hillicon Valley: GOP hits back over election security bills | Ratcliffe out for intel chief | Social media companies consider policies targeting 'deepfakes' | Capital One, GitHub sued over breach The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden camp feels boost after Detroit debate MORE (R-Okla.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Legislative Branch Subcommittee, told The Hill on Thursday that he will only support funding the OTA again if supporters make clear how the group will be run.

“The simple question for us is how is it working, what are the metrics of how it is working, and can they show progress for it, that shouldn’t be that difficult,” Lankford said. “If they can show metrics and how it works and doesn’t work, then great, if it’s not, then why are we doing this.”