Written Testimony of Zach Graves before the U.S. Senate, Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch regarding the Office of Technology Assessment and the Government Accountability Office
Zach Graves, Senior Fellow, R Street Institute
Written Testimony to the U.S. Senate, Committee on Appropriations
Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch
Dear Chairman Daines, Ranking Member Murphy and Members of the Committee:
Thank you for considering my testimony. My name is Zach Graves. I am a Senior Fellow at the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank headquartered here in Washington. My testimony today concerns Congress’s need to equip itself with the expert advice and resources necessary to understand and tackle the growing number of innovation policy challenges that face our country.
In the past several decades, we have witnessed astounding technological advances that have propelled global improvements to the human condition and further solidified America’s leadership in the world’s economy. We have made Internet access and digital commerce ubiquitous, developed new vaccines and medical innovations and expanded smartphone access even as far as the developing world.
These advances were made possible thanks to American ingenuity, and because of forward-looking policies that have allowed emerging technologies to mature and flourish. American technology companies now dominate the roster of most valuable firms in the world, employ millions of U.S. workers and account for a significant portion of GDP.
However, the breadth and scope of technical challenges is increasing faster than ever. We must now grapple with issues such as the security of the Internet of Things, renewed calls for extraordinary access to encrypted communications, the labor effects of automation, the spread of antibiotic resistant diseases, driverless cars, and the implications of machine learning—to name only a few. Unfortunately, when it comes to the policies that accompany these challenges, Congress’s internal capacity to understand and effectively tackle technical complexities has not kept pace.
In years past, Congress did have an agency whose mission was objective analysis of technical issues such as this. The now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) was an expert legislative support agency that existed inside the legislative branch from 1972 to 1995. The OTA focused on producing robust original research reports authored by teams of highly-credentialed scientists and engineers. In developing these reports, it also conducted formal consultations with outside stakeholders in industry and academia – similar to how the Government Accountability Office currently functions.
In this way, the OTA played an important role in shaping how the United States (and other countries) approached technology issues. However, the agency fell victim to the 1994 “Contract with America” political campaign and was defunded in 1995. The campaign, which helped propel Republicans to a long-sought majority in both chambers of the 104th Congress, also gave rise to a politically useful but flawed policy idea: namely, that of “Cutting Congress First.” Ultimately, this was achieved with deep cuts to congressional staffing as well as legislative support agencies – including the OTA’s entire $22 million budget.
While the goal of cutting wasteful government spending is an admirable one, abolishing the OTA merely undermined Congress’s ability to do its job in exchange for negligible savings. After all, its budget was only a tiny portion of the legislative branch budget, which itself is a tiny fraction of the overall $4 trillion federal budget. In contemplating any savings, one must also consider the trillion-dollar stakes involved in setting technology policy and the high costs of getting it wrong. When it existed, the OTA was invaluable to Congress and made cost-saving decisions that saved funds well in excess of its own budget.
Today, many conservatives have shown a renewed interest in strengthening the First Branch and restoring its proper constitutional role and capabilities. As part of this effort, it is crucial that Congress have its own resources to ascertain objective analysis and facts. Otherwise, it is left to take the word of executive agencies, interest groups and lobbyists. This circumstance is unfavorable to the health of our democracy.
This is the impetus for R Street’s interest in reviving Congress’s technology assessment arm, whether in the form of the OTA or a different entity. Indeed, the OTA’s authorizing statute remains in effect, and its funding lies within the jurisdiction of this subcommittee. Therefore it could be revived—practically speaking—simply by including funds for a pilot in the next legislative appropriations bill.
However, it has been nearly 25 years since the agency existed and thus before jumping in, appropriate consideration must be given to what a successful technology assessment office would look like today. Admittedly, this may be quite different from what the OTA looked like in 1995 given that there are a number of general points upon which its structure might be criticized and adjusted. Additionally, there are new logistical considerations that need to be addressed.
In order to resolve these questions and encourage further discussion, I respectfully urge the subcommittee to request a study on what would be necessary to reestablish an independent technology assessment function inside the legislative branch. Such a study could be done by this subcommittee, through an ad hoc group of legislative branch and technical experts, or through an outside organization such as the National Academy of Public Administration.
The study should answer key questions about the return of a congressional technology assessment function, such as:
- Should reports be driven by in-house or outside experts?
- How should it balance deep analysis with responding to inquiries or other timely requests?
- How should it prioritize the availability of resources to rank-and-file member offices, in addition to committee staff, chairmen and ranking members?
- How can it be structured to avoid politicization or bias, or the perception thereof?
- How should it engage with stakeholders in academia, civil society and industry?
- How did the OTA’s reports compare with the GAO’s current technology assessment functions, or reports from NAS? What are the pros and cons of these different approaches?
In conclusion, a twenty- first century Congress needs a twenty- first century understanding of the world and its policy challenges. Given limited resources and a fast-paced congressional calendar, congressional offices are not able to meet these challenges alone. With the help of this subcommittee, we can begin to discuss how institutions can modernize and adapt to the demands of our changing times.
Thank you for your time, and I am happy to answer any questions you may have now or in the future.
 Jacob Poushter, “Smartphone Ownership and Internet Usage Continues to Climb in Emerging Economies,” Pew Research Center, February 22, 2016. http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/02/22/smartphone-ownership-and-internet-usage-continues-to-climb-in-emerging-economies.
 For example, policies such as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Internet Tax Freedom Act and the Clinton administration’s Framework for Global Economic Commerce.
 Apple alone is responsible for creating 2,000,000 U.S. jobs. See, e.g., “Two Million U.S. Jobs and Counting,” Apple, 2018. https://www.apple.com/job-creation.
 For instance, a PwC report estimated that in 2015, the consumer technology sector directly accounted for 5.2% of GDP – which rose to 10.3% counting indirect and induced economic activity. See “U.S. Contribution of the Consumer Technology Sector,” PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP, August 2016. http://www.cta.tech/cta/media/ResearchImages/U-S-Economic-Contribution-of-the-Consumer-Technology-Sector-2016.pdf.
 Zach Graves and Kevin Kosar, “Bring in the Nerds: Reviving the Office of Technology Assessment,” R Street Policy Study No. 128, January 2018. http://www.rstreet.org/policy-study/bring-in-the-nerds-reviving-the-office-of-technology-assessment.
 See, e.g., Richard Rowberg, “How Did the Reports of OTA, the Congressional Research Service, and the National Academies Differ?” LegBranch.com, November 14, 2016. http://www.legbranch.com/theblog/2016/11/14/how-did-the-reports-of-ota-the-congressional-research-service-and-the-national-academies-differ.
 $22 million in 1995 is about $35 million in 2017 dollars.
 For example, the OTA’s recommendations helped modernize the Social Security Administration’s IT procurements, which saved taxpayers $368 million. Additionally, its criticism of the Synthetic Fuels Corporation contributed to billions in taxpayer savings. See, e.g., M. Granger Morgan and Jon M. Peha, Science and Technology Advice for Congress (Routledge, 2003), pp. 69.
 “Article I Project,” Office of Senator Mike Lee, 2016. https://www.lee.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/article1project.
 The GAO has a small technology assessment program that was made permanent in 2008. See: gao.gov/technology_assessment/key_reports.