By Aden Siebel (PO’21)
It’s no secret that Congress is woefully out of touch with modern technology. With mounting scandals bringing an increasing number of tech executives in front of Congress, lawmakers have proven time and again to be uninformed and ill-equipped. From Facebook to Google, executives have faced interrogation that is unprepared at best, perhaps most famously represented by one congressman asking Mark Zuckerberg how his company makes a profit. Not only do these limitations contribute to a failure to regulate growing tech giants, they also leave lawmakers unequipped to deal with technological issues closer to home, such as law enforcement’s access to smartphone information or the issue of net neutrality. It’s clear that this is an issue, but less clear is why it exists and how to fix it. A closer look reveals that this widespread ignorance can be traced partially back to Newt Gingrich’s 1995 decision to dismantle the Office of Technology Assessment.
This Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) helped provide lawmakers with the tools and information necessary to tackle issues of science and technology. Founded in 1972 through a bipartisan effort, the office published frequent reports on a variety of issues, providing background and scientific analysis as well as potential policy solutions. These solutions were usually varied, and OTA intended to present a slate of potential options without advocating for any particular approach. The office worked with experts in various scientific fields, synthesizing their knowledge so it could be utilized by lawmakers. In total, the office published over 700 reports, each of which attempted to show congresspeople the limitations and possibilities of various technological advancements and facilitate educated policy.
The very beginning of the Act establishing OTA states that “As technology continues to change and expand rapidly, its applications are 1. large and growing in scale; and 2. increasingly extensive, pervasive, and critical in their impact, beneficial and adverse, on the natural and social environment.” This was written in 1972, but these words resonate more than ever with the emergence of massive tech companies that exert an increasing influence in our society. Although OTA dealt with issues of science more broadly, its focus on technology and a philosophy of scientific literacy represented an important service for policy development.
The OTA had a significant impact on policy during its lifespan. It published numerous reports that influenced policy on issues from the environment to national security. By covering such an extensive range of topics, the office was able to have a wide impact beyond specific expertise. Their reports were also known to put forward realistic expectations and shut down sweeping and over-optimistic policy ideas born out of ignorance. Moreover, the office represented the prioritization of scientific literacy and understanding in policymaking.
Despite the office’s impact, the OTA wasn’t spared by Newt Gingrich’s 1995 crusade against government spending. During 1995, congressional staff on the whole was stripped down significantly, and the OTA was eliminated completely. This was seen as a way to trim the fat from Congress and through it, big government. Some have argued that this move was in part due to a desire to push less rigorous or accurate scientific agendas, while others say that it was due to the office’s criticism of programs including President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. What seems most likely, however, is that Gingrich was determined to eliminate any department that he could argue was no longer useful. Since then, there have been a number of calls to reinstate OTA, mostly from the left. However, these efforts have categorically failed, including a 2018 defeat in the House of Representatives. With already heated budget debates and a recent government shutdown, it’s unlikely that either party can find the time and political capital to reinstate an office that focuses on an area of governance largely ignored by lawmakers.
Newt Gingrich’s desperate efforts to strip away funding from any government entity within his grasp meant the deaths of organizations regardless of usefulness or significant budgetary impact. In this case, an office that cost the government only $20 million a year, or 1 percent of spending for legislative issues, was cut under the guise of small-government cost effectiveness. Now, so many years later, we are left with a congressman sitting in front of the leader of one of the world’s most influential companies, someone responsible for collecting the data of millions of Americans, completely unaware of the concept of online advertisement. As tech companies become some of the largest economic forces in the world and find themselves at the center of a number of political and social debates, it’s time for Congress to catch up.
Credit to Aaryaman Sheoran for originally inspiring this article.