Reviving the Office of Technology Assessment would require a set of specific conditions in Congress. We have simply not arrived at that time.

Cato Unbound is taking on the issue of tech expertise this month and the lead essay came from Kevin Kosar, who argues for the revival of the Office of Technology Assessment. As he explains,

[N]o one wants Congress enacting policies that make us worse off, or that delay or stifle technologies that improve our lives. And yet this kind of bad policy happens with lamentable frequency. Pluralistic politics inevitably features some self-serving interests that are more powerful and politically persuasive than others. This is why government often undertakes bailouts and other actions that are odious to the public writ large.

He continues, “Congress’s ineptitude in [science and technology policy] has been richly displayed.” To help embed expertise in science and technology policy, Kosar argues for the revival of the Office of Technology Assessment, which was established in 1972 and defunded in 1995.

I have been on the OTA beat for a little while now, and so I offered some criticism of Kosar’s proposal, which you can find here. I’ll lay out my cards: I’ve been skeptical of reving the OTA in the past and I remain so. Here is my key graf on that:

Elsewhere, I have argued that the OTA should be seen as a last resort; there are other ways of embedding expertise in Congress, like boosting staff and reforming hiring practices. The following essay makes a slightly different argument, namely, that the history of the OTA shows the razor wire on which a revived version of agency will have to balance. In its early years, the OTA was dogged by accusations of partiality. Having established itself as a neutral party throughout the 1980s, the OTA was abolished because it failed to distinguish itself among competing agencies. There is an underlying political economy to expertise that makes the revival of the OTA difficult, undercutting it as an option for expanding tech expertise. In a modern political environment where scientific knowledge is politicized and budgets are tight, the OTA would likely face the hatchet once again.

The OTA wasn’t supposed to be just a tech assessment office, but also an outside government agency that could check the Executive. The legislative history underpins that goal:

While members wanted the OTA to help understand an increasingly complex world, congressional architects also thought it would redress an imbalance of federal power that favored the White House. Speaking in favor of the creation of the OTA in May 1970, Missouri Democrat James Symington emphasized that, “We have tended simply to accede to administration initiatives, which themselves from time to time may have been hastily or inaccurately promoted.” When the bill came to the floor in 1972, Republican Representative Charles Mosher noted, “Let us face it, Mr. Chairman, we in the Congress are constantly outmanned and outgunned by the expertise of the executive agencies.” Writing on the eve of its demise, a historian of the agency explained that, “the most important factor in establishing the OTA was a desire on the part of Congress for technical advice independent of the executive branch.”

The demand for the OTA at its genesis was twofold, for knowledge as Kosar explains, but also for power. I doubt Democrats or the Republicans today would “simply to accede to administration initiatives,” as both had a tendency to do in the 1960s. The agency was created at a time when both sides of Congress wanted to check the president. It was a solution to an intertwined set of problems. While the tenor in Congress could swiftly change, a groundswell of bipartisan support for an OTA would be needed before any efforts to revive it could be effective. A revival would need to be a compromise that both parties and both chambers of Congress could agree to. We have simply not arrived at that time.

But there are solutions to sidestep the reinvigoration of a standalone agency. In line with my suggestions from last year, the General Accounting Office is expanding their tech assessment program. Congress also needs to reform their staffing processes to encourage stability and reduce turnover. None of these proposals, however, will make headway in changing congressional offices back toward their orientation in the early 1990s. In a follow up post over at Cato, I will explore the challenges that any reform will face when trying to solve the problem of tech expertise.