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The legislative branch doesn’t lack for watchdog offices, but as agencies continue to adopt emerging technology at an accelerating pace, lawmakers and good-government groups have renewed their calls to bring back the Office of Technology Assessment.
Before it was defunded by Congress in 1995, OTA helped lawmakers understand technology-focused policy issues through deep-dive reports.
Maurice Turner, a former Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs staffer, now a senior technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said congressional committees, also facing reduced staffing levels, lack for objective research on technology policy.
Without OTA, advocacy groups, think tanks and associations have looked to fill that void, but Turner said those briefings always come with some level of bias.
“You’re always going to be a little bit skeptical of what is coming into your office when it’s coming into your inbox, when it’s coming from outsiders,” Turner said. “I think that if there is a larger pool of trusted resources available to congressional staff, it would be beneficial to the development of policy.”
Sasha Moss, previously a staffer for former Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), now a federal government affairs manager at the R Street Institute, agreed that OTA can serve as an impartial policy adviser in ways that think tanks cannot.
“Wehaveourowninterest, andwewillgiveyouourpersonalacademicperspectives,” Moss said. “Butyoushouldhave a non-biased perspectiveathand, aswell — and alsothatcanbecalledonanymoment.”
Whether or not Congress restores OTA, the Government Accountability Office already has plans to expand its roster of science and technology experts.
By the end of this year, the GAO will grow its information technology and cybersecurity team from 140 employees to 175, and in the near future, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told members of the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday that he’d like to see the agency’s new Science, Technology, Assessment and Analytics Team grow from 70 employees to 140 employees.
However, GAO has also called on Congress for a substantial $58 million budget increase for fiscal 2020 — nearly a 10 percent increase from enacted levels.
Just as well, since attracting top talent to a newly reestablished OTA won’t come cheap, as the government continues to compete with the private sector for new graduates with in-demand skills and degrees.
“Ithinkthereneedstobesomesortofapipeline, even if it’s only on atemporarybasis, togetmorepeoplewhohave thisexpertiseintoCongress forashortperiodoftime,” Turner said.
In the executive branch, the staff behind the U.S. Digital Service and 18F have helped agencies improve their websites. And for years, the IRS has urged Congress to reauthorize the critical pay authorization, which would allow the IRS to compete with Silicon Valley for top cybersecurity talent.
Congressional staff, as it stands, can’t get paid more than what members of Congress receive, which caps their pay at $174,000.
Daniel Schuman, a former Congressional Research Service attorney, now the policy director for Demand Progress, said the legislative branch, in general, has suffered from staffing cuts since OTA was defunded.
By his estimation, the House has nearly 1,000 fewer staffers now than it did 25 years ago, and the Government Accountability Office has lost about 2,000 employees within the same period of time.
Dodaro told members of a House Appropriations subcommittee Wednesday that Congress has over the years reduced its own staff, and the staff of its supporting agencies, to its detriment.
“Overtheyears, I’vealwayssaidthat I thinkthatthat’samistaketokeepreducing,” Dodaro said. “Evenatitsheight, thelegislativebranch is so out-personed, ifyouwill, compared to theexecutivebranch that it’shardtoconducttheoversightoverthoseareas. Andissuesarehappeningmorerapidlynow, inthedevelopmentofscienceandtechnologyissues.”
Those staffing shortages on the Hill, Moss said, put congressional staffers in the difficult position of cramming to become subject matter experts for hearings.
“Pointblank, staffdon’thaveenoughtimetolearncomplexsubjectmatter in sometimeslessthan48hours,” Moss said.
That time crunch also doesn’t do members of Congress any favors when getting briefed for committee hearings.
“I thinktheworstkeptsecret in D.C.isthatthere’sa10 a.m.hearing, thecongressmanislookingatthequestionsat9:59 [a.m.] andreadingtheirbinder at exactly10 a.m., iftheygettothe dais andiftheygettothehearingroomontime,” Moss added.
While the legislative branch can’t staff up the size of the executive branch — which includes more than 2 million federal employees — Schuman said it can at least maintain comparable institutions.
“When you see the way that Congress has been set up, it is often done so in juxtaposition to what the executive branch has, because you shouldn’t rely just on the president for information,” he said.
Much like how the Congressional Budget Office provides oversight to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, Schuman said OTA should serve as a counterpoint to the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
However, OSTP director Kelvin Droegemeier, speaking less than a week after the executive order was signed, expressed concern that the U.S. doesn’t have a clear headcount of how many researchers and institutions are actually working on AI across the government, the private sector and non-profit sectors, and academia.