Time for a Congressional Office of Technology

Congress is struggling to understand, let alone address, the most pressing technological challenges of our time. It doesn’t have to be this way.

For the past several weeks, the debate over encryption has been back in the mainstream. Following a tragic shooting at a naval base in Florida, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) asked Apple to unlock two iPhones that belonged to the shooter. The FBI was in possession of a search warrant, but the only way for the bureau to access the contents of the locked iPhone was if Apple developed a backdoor to its secure encryption. In the end, Apple said no to creating such a backdoor, citing the company’s commitment to user privacy.

I followed this debate closely, for it resembled a similar challenge we faced after a 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, California. At that time, Congress again found itself in the middle of a contentious debate about encryption and whether Apple should be required to unlock the shooters’ iPhone and give the FBI access to its contents. Back then, I was extremely concerned about the fact that, in the middle of this debate, Congress did not have access to its own set of unbiased technological experts who could help inform members of the implications of requiring Apple to carry out the FBI’s request.

If the current debate over encryption were to reach Congress again, members would still be unable to objectively weigh in on the debate because, outside of their own staff, they continue to lack access to technology experts who could help them fully understand the challenges that might follow from creating a backdoor to encryption. It is crucial that Congress have available independent analysis if it is to legislate effectively and weigh in wisely on national debates surrounding new and emerging technologies.

That is why I am a strong proponent of restoring and enhancing the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Before it was defunded in 1995, OTA was an independent, bipartisan agency that provided Congress with unbiased information on technology and its potential effects. OTA was set up in the early 1970s to help Congress anticipate how emerging technologies would potentially affect our society and, more generally, to improve Congress’s ability to legislate on matters relating to technology.

Now, nearly a quarter-century after OTA was defunded, it’s no secret that Congress is struggling to understand, let alone to address, the most pressing technological challenges of our time.

It doesn’t have to be this way—which is why I have partnered with Representative Bill Foster (D-IL) and Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Thom Thillis (R-NC) to introduce the Office of Technology Assessment Improvement and Enhancement Act (H.R. 4426). Our bill envisions a modernized OTA that would provide short-term technical expertise to members of Congress while maintaining the forward-looking assessment work that has only grown more vitally important since OTA was defunded. The legislation proposes calling this rebooted office the Congressional Office of Technology (COT), emphasizing the agency’s position as an essential tool of Congress.

Restoring OTA as a revamped COT would give Congress access to more of the resources it needs to legislate on science and technology issues, empowering the institution to address present technology challenges and prepare for what’s in store in the future. While Congress does have access to some technical experts through the work of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Congressional Research Service (CRS), there are still gaps that a dedicated congressional science and technology assessment office would fill, especially as technology is ever evolving and requires forward-looking policy. The COT would help ensure that there is a steady flow of cutting-edge thinking on science and technology in Congress.

The COT would build on the strong foundation of OTA while being more responsive to the needs of members and staff. Members will be able to request technology assessments for consideration by the Technology Assessment Board—which would still be, as it was when it oversaw OTA, evenly divided between the two parties and the two houses of Congress. The COT would be open and transparent with members about the request-review process. In addition to researching, writing, and publishing technology assessments, the COT would provide briefings, informal conversations, and technical assistance to members on science and technology issues without the need for board review. And in addition to the COT consulting with external experts, as OTA did, COT would benefit from a program that brings science and technology experts from academia and industry onto its staff on a rotating basis.

The growing bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate for restoring and modernizing OTA is an indicator of members’ recognition of the dire need for Congress to get smart on tech. Outside observers concur: Recent reports from the Harvard Belfer Center and the National Academy of Public Administration found that Congress needs to invest in additional science and technology expertise and that this expertise should come from an entity that is embedded in Congress.

We are grappling with a wide range of science and technology issues, including many related to digital technology—from the urgent (e.g., encryption, online disinformation) to the emerging (e.g., quantum computing, artificial intelligence). It is increasingly clear that Congress lacks the institutional capacity to deal with these technologies’ social, economic, and political implications. We must build that capacity if we are to address the challenges of today and prepare for what might come tomorrow. Restoring a new and improved Office of Technology Assessment must be a priority.

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Cite this Article

Takano, Mark. “Time for a Congressional Office of Technology.” Issues in Science and Technology (January 31, 2020).