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Tag Archive: Office of Technology Assessment

How Congress Cut its Policy Expertise

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In the past 20 years, Congress has effectively allowed its legislative support branches to wither and stripped away its ability to process information. It has cut back its ability to review, contextualize, and evaluate information in a way that creates informed policy. Lorelei Kelly, leader of the Smart Congress pilot project at the New America Foundation, looks into this trend in a new paper: "Congress' Wicked Problem." It explores topics we have discussed in a series of posts on the House and Senate. She explains how much of the cutting to the policymaking infrastructure of Congress came in the mid-1990s. That was also the era of cutting the shared staff who had historically built knowledge and expertise around certain topics. Some members of Congress used these shared staff to their advantage, giving relatives and friends plum positions with little real work, but for the most part shared staff were a valuable asset. A rule change in 1995 cut pooled funding for staff and essentially eviscerated the caucus system. Kelly does a fantastic job of explaining in detail what impacts that cut had, showing how the knowledge gap was filled with a new top-down system of information handed out by party leaders. The paper makes an important distinction between information and knowledge in Congress. While lawmakers might receive plenty of information from lobbyists and interest groups, they have a weakened ability to seek other views and context for the flood of spin coming from K Street. Another key change Kelly notes is the elimination of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1995. Congress created the nonpartisan agency in 1972 to look at the impacts of technology policy decisions. After OTA was cut, there were calls for lobbyists to fill the gap. Sunlight and others called for restoring funding to OTA or some other nonpartisan source of expertise. We are glad to see someone exposing how Congress has weakened its ability to understand complex policy decisions, and we hope it will spark more discussion of what can be done to stop the cutting of knowledge.

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Update on Office of Technology Assessment

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Last week, I wrote that the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee had restored the funding for the Office of Technology Assessment, a nonpartisan technology research agency that was defunded in 1995. Initially we were told that the subcommittee reestablished the OTA with $2.5 million in funding but as more information has come out I have to change what was reported last week. According to Technology Daily's Aliya Sternstein, the $2.5 million appropriated by the subcommittee was directed to the General Accounting Office to do technology studies. This is still a great step forward as the GAO is respected for its research and, unlike CRS, posts all of its research online for the general public. This is a great victory for anyone wants members of Congress to have access to the best technology research available. The Sunlight Foundation is especially excited about future reports on how Internt techonology can improve the way Congress relates to the public. If you want to look at what these reports might look like check out this OTA report from 1988 titled, "Informing the Nation: Federal Information Dissemination in an Electronic Age."

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OTA Renewed, Gets $2.5 Million

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Lawmakers renewed funding for the Office of Technology Assessment yesterday at a markup for the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill. We don't have full details yet but the subcommittee approved $2.5 million to reestablish the OTA, which will provide nonpartisan technological and scientific research to members of Congress and the general public. Congress has finally reversed what science blogger Chris Mooney called a "stunning act of self-lobotomy." Let us all rejoice in knowing that Congress has its brain back again. This will hopefully bring new research that will support our mission to use Internet technologies to make the Congress more open, transparent, and accessible to the public.

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Sunlight Endorses OTA; Markup Pushed to Wednesday

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The Sunlight Foundation has sent a letter endorsing a renewed Office of Techonology Assessment to Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Zach Wamp. Wasserman Schultz was supposed to hold a markup today that would have addressed the OTA but it has been pushed back to Wednesday. That means you still have time to contact your member of Congress and let them know that you support the OTA and that they should send the "Dear Colleague" letter they received from Reps. Rush Holt and Michael Castle to Wasserman Schultz and Wamp. Check out this blog post from last week for full directions on how you can get involved. The endorsement letter is below the fold:

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Tell Your Congressman to Support the OTA

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In 1995 Congress defunded the Office of Technology Assessment, a nonpartisan scientific and technology research arm of Congress. Today, two congressmen are trying to bring it back. Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Rep. Michael Castle (R-DE) need your help to reinstate this important institution in Congress. The OTA would provide nonpartisan research on technology issues ranging from energy independence to net neutrality. Here at Sunlight we are especially excited about the reinstatement of OTA as it would provide members of Congress with assessment of the technology infrastructure within Congress itself. The OTA would also put all of its research online for everyone to access.

On Monday, the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee will hold a markup that will address the OTA. We need you to call your member of Congress and tell them to 1) support the reinstatement of the OTA and 2) to sign the Dear Colleague letter that they received from Reps. Rush Holt and Michael Castle and return it to Reps. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Zach Wamp. When Congress defunded the OTA one of its supporters, Rep. Amo Houghton (R-NY), said, "Members of Congress are deluged with advice from many quarters, but it is often tinged with the underlying bias and political agenda of the bearer. ... We are cutting off one of the most important arms of Congress when we cut off unbiased knowledge about science and technology." It's time to bring back the OTA and unbiased research on science and technology. Call your congressman now!

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