An amendment to a bill to fund the legislative branch, proposed by Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., would have added $20 million to the Government Accountability Office budget next year to expand its ability to do technology assessment. The amendment failed to pass.
GAO, formerly called the General Accounting Office, has been doing such studies, though on a very small scale, for the past couple of years.
The money was part of an effort by Holt to begin to restore the capabilities of the old Office of Technology Assessment. From 1974-1995 OTA analyzed everything from pest control to missile defense, presenting reports specifically designed to help Congress make policy decisions in the face of competing information and short deadlines.
Congress cut off funds for the Office of Technology Assessment, ostensibly to save money, but only saved $20 million. Lawmakers now lean on organizations like the National Academy of Sciences, whose operations are not necessarily geared toward congressional needs.
The Congressional Budget Office, the Congressional Research Service and the GAO, experts told United Press International, are very good organizations but do not do answer the sort of big-implication technology questions that OTA used to handle.
Holt also has authored a bill, H.R. 4670, which along with a similar measure by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., S. 2556, would give GAO, whose abilities and neutrality are respected by both parties, the mandate and resources to study, what Bingaman's bill called "the impact of technology on matters of public concern, including implications for economic, national security, social, scientific, and other national policies and programs."
Holt's bill would establish within GAO the new Center for Scientific and Technical Assessment. CSTA would answer to a board of 12 members of Congress, with membership evenly divided between the two main political parities and between the House and the Senate. Any member of Congress would be able to ask the CSTA to investigate and report on "any matter relating to scientific and technical assessment" though requests made by both the House and Senate or by members of both parties would get priority.
The balanced board membership was crafted to appeal to Republicans. Though the official reason for the demise of OTA was budget cutting, the organization had found itself in the gun sights of conservative Republicans, who complained of political bias. Even a decade later, passions flare at the mention of OTA.
Rick Tyler, a spokesman for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was at the helm when OTA was closed, spoke heatedly about the organization's politicalization, insisting that members of Congress simply could call researchers directly if they want information.
"Why would you put a filter between you and a scientist?" Tyler told UPI.
Others, including many in the science community, are just as insistent that OTA was fair and valuable.
Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists and a former employee at OTA, said he believes there were sufficient safeguards to prevent bias at the organization and that its work was absolutely vital to Congress.
Kelly called the closing of OTA by Congress "the equivalent of a self-inflicted lobotomy."
Is such an organization necessary? There are, indeed, many highly technical policy issues Congress must address, most of which the public never hears about.
For example, the telecommunications industry argued for years the federal government did not need all of the radio frequencies it claimed. Selling off some of that spectrum would have been lucrative for Congress and might have created new, taxpaying businesses.
The spectrum was used, however, in some cases by weapons systems that depended on a large range of frequencies to hide their signals. Reducing the amount of federal spectrum could affect those and future defenses systems, undermining national security. Even putting commercial signals too near military signals could cause interference. How close is too close? Both sides disagreed on what was doable.
The real-world practicality of having members of Congress figure this out by making phone calls is questionable. Even if everyone could find the time to sit down with experts on spectrum interference -- or virology or computer systems or other complicated topics -- would they realistically be able to sort through all the conflicting information on all the topics Congress covers to find what is needed to make fast decisions? Not likely.
GAO already has been conducting pilot studies to see how well it could handle the sort of in-depth, big-picture studies that OTA used to undertake. Two of these studies looked at cybersecurity and critical infrastructure protection and the use of biometrics to enhance border security.
An independent evaluation of the study on biometrics by Robert Fri, Granger Morgan and William (Skip) Stiles of Carnegie Mellon University said GAO had done "a very good job" especially in light of the limited time it had to do the study.
They noted, however, "the first GAO effort has been rather less successful in framing the analysis broadly in such a way as to address the full range of issues which the Congress is likely to have to consider and in providing analytically informed input that will support the need of congressional staff and members as they refine and tune legislative products."
What it will take to build such a tailored service is steady, adequate funding. Bingaman's bill proposes only $2 million -- better than what has been available up to now but not enough to really get the ball rolling. The level proposed by Holt would be closer to what is needed to begin building the necessary team of experts.
"(Twenty million dollars) would be a lot of help," said Martin Apple, president of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents.
Apple noted steady support was necessary to building a good team.
Unfortunately, even if Congress agreed to more funding this year, without passage of the bills and the mandate that brings, continued funding for future years would be tricky. The only solution is to pass legislation that gives GAO the order to do such work.
Neither bill, however, looks likely to pass. Both were proposed late in this session and have not yet moved forward.
Even if this were not an election year, the competition to get through hearings and onto the floor for a vote would be daunting. Though Holt's bill has 15 co-sponsors, including Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Science Committee, Kelly said he does not think it will be able to reach critical mass for passage.
Holt has been determined and consistent, however, in his efforts to establish some sort of research capability and he is not the only member of Congress looking for better information.
The U.S. economy is driven in large measure by technology advances. There are no advances without costs, however, and balancing risk is what Congress is elected to do. Hopefully, the real need for independent information and the economic risk posed by bad decisions will swing members of Congress toward supporting an enhanced GAO. It is difficult to see a downside to having good information, especially when the price of ignorance is high.