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OTA making a comeback? House Dems eye shuttered office to combat Silicon Valley

Washington's answer to big tech could be an office mothballed almost 25 years ago.
Image: Charles Rangel talking on mobile phone
Former Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., is pictured on a cellphone outside the Capitol in 1995, the year Congress eliminated the Office of Technology Assessment.Maureen Keating / CQ Roll Call via Getty Images file

Democratic members of the House are renewing a push to reopen a government office dedicated to providing expertise and analysis on new technologies, an effort made timely by efforts from both parties to rein in the power of major tech companies.

And this time, the Democrats have some support from their Republican colleagues.

Rep. Sean Casten of Illinois is one of several Democratic lawmakers who are looking to re-establish the Office of Technology Assessment, or OTA, which was shuttered almost 25 years ago. And though previous efforts to bring the office back have been stymied by partisan politics, Casten said he believes times have changed.

“I think we're in a moment right now that it’s not partisan for government to be prepared do its job,” Casten said. “There's a bipartisan consensus that government needs to be educated to do its job.”

Casten and other lawmakers who spoke to NBC News said the biggest impetus for change came from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress in April 2018 at which numerous lawmakers appeared uninformed about the company’s operations.

“It wasn’t a good look for Congress,” Casten said of the hearing.

Established in 1972, the original incarnation of the OTA was staffed by nonpartisan scientists, academics and tech experts who authored hundreds of deep-dive reports for Congress on energy policy, terrorism, the internet and other topics. But the office was defunded in 1995 after Republicans took control of Congress and made a variety of cuts to government programs.

“In terms of bang for a buck, I think you would be hard-pressed to find a better little office,” Casten said.

Image: Newly elected Republican Speaker of the House Newt
Newly-elected Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich waves from the speaker's chair at the Capital on Jan. 4, 1995, the year Congress eliminated the Office of Technology Assessment.J. David Ake / AFP - Getty Images file

For some in Washington, the OTA’s return cannot come soon enough. Congress is now calling hearings on a weekly basis on a wide variety of subjects related to technology, from the security implications of China and cryptocurrencies to whether companies like Facebook and Google have too much power over speech or commerce.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who is also advocating to re-establish the OTA, said the office could reopen later this year. In May, the House Appropriations Committee voted to provide $6 million for a new iteration of the OTA as part of a bill expected to be voted on before September.

Takano said the bill appears to have the votes needed to pass.

“Congress is in a perpetual predicament of having to keep up with technology and technology’s implications,” said Takano, who’s been working on the re-establishment of the OTA for more than three years. “We’re caught behind the eight ball in terms of keeping up with technological advances and how much we need to regulate these emerging technologies.”

And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been voicing support for the re-establishment of the OTA.

Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina is among the Republicans who have spoken publicly about the need for a nonpartisan office dedicated to technology.

“A revised and restored OTA will give Congress critical resources and will provide much-needed help as we tackle issues as diverse as data privacy, energy independence and American innovation and entrepreneurship,” Tillis said.

The need to better regulate tech companies has also become an issue among the Democratic presidential candidates, with one of them, Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur, making reviving the OTA a part of his policy proposals.

Among the issues Takano and Casten are hopeful the re-established OTA will address: the implications of genetic engineering, the emergence of artificial intelligence, and ongoing privacy and antitrust concerns involving social media giants, notably Facebook.

Technology experts say the potential re-establishment of the OTA is a step in the right direction after a growing series of congressional gaffes.

“There have been a lot of pretty embarrassing congressional hearings on emerging technologies recently,” said Zach Graves, the head of policy for the Lincoln Network, a technology and policy group headquartered in Silicon Valley. “I think re-establishing the OTA is incredibly important. You’re looking at a triage situation in Washington. Congress needs the expertise. If they hope to do regulatory reform, someone needs to do this work.”

Graves said that the preparation work for critical science and technology-related hearings and votes now falls to young congressional staffers, who are often unprepared and lack the necessary background in issues they’ve been assigned to write briefs and questions about.

“The frontline is 24-year-old congressional aides who are prepping their lawmaker bosses for a hearing on 48-hours notice,” Graves said.

Daniel Schuman, policy director of Demand Progress, a nonprofit that focuses on a variety of technology issues, said he has worked to improve tech-related Wikipedia pages out of a belief that congressional staffers turn to the online resource for information.

"One of the things that I’m working on is how to get references and links to scientific reports on Wikipedia pages because I know congressional staffers are going to be going to Wikipedia when they're researching these topics," Schuman said. “It’s not because they’re dumb. There’s not enough of them. There’s not enough time. The people that work in Congress are captive to the system."

Takano and Casten said it’s their hope that the re-launched OTA will not only look into urgent matters but also do in-depth reports, exploring ways in which the U.S. can make technological advances and maintain a competitive edge in the world.

“We need to get to a place where we elevate science above politics,” Takano said. “The future is going to depend on policymakers who are able to anticipate and plan for the future.”

CORRECTION (July 22, 2019, 4:22 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the staffing situation this summer at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. The office was unstaffed in 2017, but has since added staff members.