Congress ‘lacks sufficient capacity’ to oversee tech issues, but is Office of Tech Assessment the solution?

Members of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress agree the legislative branch lacks tech oversight capacity to keep an eye on federal agencies, but whether that means bringing back the Office of Technology Assessment, as some lawmakers have suggested, remains unclear.

Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told committee members on Wednesday that Congress “lacks sufficient capacity” to oversee the executive branch and lacks the staffing resources to deal with its workload and the “complexity of the problems it must solve.”

“These issues have been raised during every major effort to reform Congress,” Reynolds said.

Rep. Suzan Delbene (D-Wash.) brought up the suggestion from the committee’s first meeting on March 12 about the possibility of resurrecting OTA, a watchdog office that Congress defunded in 1995.

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Reynolds said the committee’s renewed interest in OTA “reflects a real need for increased scientific and technological expertise” within Congress.

However, the Government Accountability Office may wind up stealing OTA’s thunder.

By the end of 2019, the GAO will grow its information technology and cybersecurity team from 140 employees to 175. And as part of its fiscal 2020 budget request, which is 10 percent increase from enacted levels, GAO also looks to expand the Science, Technology, Assessment and Analytics Team from 70 employees to 140 employees.

Other federal watchdog offices, including Commerce Department Inspector General Peggy Gustafson, have supported staffing up GAO rather than stand up more infrastructure for OTA.

“I think there are a lot of different specific options we could take, but I do sense that that’s an area of interest and it’s incredibly important as we have an increasingly complex world,” Reynolds said.

Regardless of whether OTA comes back, or whether GAO gets its staffing increase, Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) pointed to the number of outstanding GAO and IG recommendations that agencies have yet to implement.

“I think we do a lot of studying [but] we don’t do a lot of implementing the solutions, and that’s what I think we as members need to focus on,” Davis said.

The legislative branch, much like the agencies it oversees, faces challenges to recruiting top tech talent, which can enter high-paying jobs in the private sector.

Congressional staff can’t get paid more than what members of Congress receive, which caps their pay at $174,000.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) noted that lawmakers haven’t received a pay raise for more than 10 years, not even a cost-of-living adjustment, and said she doesn’t “foresee that changing anytime soon.”

“In terms of computer experts, we’re looking at that, and the most we can offer is what an entry-level programmer gets in my district,” Lofgren said. “I mean, you can’t compete.”

Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit group whose focus is to help members of Congress better serve their constituents, suggested tuition reimbursement as a recruitment incentive, similar to what federal employees receive.

“I think you’re the only branch of the federal government that has that doesn’t have tuition reimbursement for its employees,” he said.

Committee Chairman Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) compared the committee’s mission statement to the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime,” which includes the line: “And you may ask yourself, well how did I get here?”

“That song would be a good soundtrack to this hearing. I think a lot of our constituents are asking the exact same question of us: How did Congress get here? Where and how have things gotten so far off the rails that Congress is not fulfilling its obligation to its bosses, the American people?”

Davis referred back to the same Talking Heads song as Kilmer, but pointed to the song’s chorus: “Same as it ever was.”

“Many of the same issues,” staffers face today, Davis explained, are the same problems he faced working as a congressional district staffer for 16 years, before running for Congress himself in 2012.

“We’re dealing with institutional problems that we have to face,” Davis said.

Beyond pay issues, he said private-sector talent remains a frustration with bureaucratic “limits” on what they can accomplish in government compared to what they can accomplish in the private sector.

”Bill Gates could come here and he’d still be hamstrung by some of the limitations that we’ve put in place by our own actions, or better yet our inactions,” Davis said.

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