Gregory C. Kunkle
Technology in Society, Vol. 17, No. 2. pp. 175-196, 1995
ABSTRACT: Recent opposition to the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) revives concerns raised when this office was first proposed. Then, as now, members of Congress were concerned that the OTA might duplicate functions of other agencies. Although the original concept of technology assessment came out of a desire to better control negative technological impacts on the environment, the most important factor in establishing the OTA was a desire on the part of Congress for technical advice independent of the executive branch. Accordingly, Congress has retained rather tight control, making the OTA more of an information agency that responds to congressional requests than an independent early-warning or technology-monitoring mechanism. As a review of its historical development can indicate, further limitations imposed on the agency would undermine the last vestiges the original assessment concept, whereas eliminating the office would have implications for future executive-legislative relations.
As part of the larger aims outlined in their Contract With America, Republican leaders have announced their intention to eliminate the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). In order to reduce expenditures and streamline the federal government, the Senate Republican Policy Committee has favored eliminating the office, arguing that “a lot of [its] duties could probably be picked up by the Congressional Research Service.” But this threat is not new, and the issues presented by current OTA critics are strikingly similar to concerns voiced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it was first being proposed. Responses to the early concerns have been crucial to the office’s subsequent history and even limit the ways in which it can now respond to the same charges raised anew.
Origins of the OTA
The OTA was established by an act of Congress and signed into law by President Nixon in October 1972,but its history has deeper roots. The idea for the organization emerged in a period of technological revisionism characterized by the Supersonic Transport (SST) and Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) controversies and the closely related burgeoning environmental concerns of the 1960s and 1970s. While the office is often discussed in that context, its origins are also deeply enmeshed in tensions between the executive and legislative branches of the Federal government. In response to the problem of managing an increasing science and technology budget and the attendant difficulties of legislative oversight of scientific and technically ensconced executive agencies, members of Congress began calling for better technical advice in the early 1960s.
By 1962, Congress had begun to take action to improve the information it received by enacting statutory changes in the Office of Science and Technology in the Executive Office of the president to make the president’s science adviser more accessible to the Congress. But the feeling persisted that Congress needed more and better advice. This perception became especially acute in the House Committee on Science and Astronautics–a committee whose tasks had increased considerably in significance and scope with President Kennedy’s pledge on May 25, 1961, to land a man on the moon by the decade’s end. The committee chairman, California Democrat George Miller, expressed his concern over Congress’s lack of ability to evaluate matters of scientific and technical complexity. In what would become a recurring theme during the 1960s, Miller remarked:
We are concerned with whether or not hasty decisions are handed down to us, but one of our difficulties is how to evaluate these decisions. We have to take a great deal on faith. We are not scientists…[but] I want to say that in our system of government we have our responsibility. We are not the rubber stamps of the administrative branch of government…[W]e recognize our responsibility to the people and the necessity for making some independent judgments…[but] we do not particularly have the facilities nor the resources that the executive department of government has.
This concern was shared by members on both sides of the aisle. Miller’s remarks were immediately followed by those of Representative James G. Fulton of Pennsylvania, a Republican. Fulton commented on the shortcomings of relying on the Bureau of the Budget, which is part of the executive branch, for information, remarking that “there is a defect…there is no scientific evaluation or judgement put to it, as between programs or the worthiness of a particular program…we do need good advice.”
With an eye toward strengthening the Congress’s scientific oversight of federal science and technology initiatives and to more “effectively choose and implement research and development policy,” the Committee on Science and Astronautics established a subcommittee on Science, Research, and Development under the chairmanship of Representative Emilio Daddario, Democrat from Connecticut. The new subcommittee was commissioned to determine what kind of advice Congress required “in order to oversee programs effectively and to legislate in a knowledgeable manner” and to investigate “the available sources of science advice to the Congress and how may those be used effectively.” To that end, beginning in October 1963, the Daddario subcommittee held hearings at which prominent scientists and government officials testified.
The first person to appear before the subcommittee was Dr. Frederick Seitz, President of the National Academy of Sciences. Daddario’s opening remarks indicated the concern felt in Congress regarding the imbalance of technical advice available to the different branches of government. As he remarked to Seitz, “it is obvious that from the very beginning the National Academy of Sciences has had a close relationship with the executive branch, and yet this has not been so with the Congress.”
In response to this desire for better advice, as early as 1963, members of Congress introduced legislation directed at strengthening congressional capabilities in science and technology, emphasizing the need to do so in light of the executive branch advantages. Having addressed the Senate in July, 1963, Senator Edward L. Bartlett, Democrat from Alaska, introduced a bill on August 13 to “establish in the legislative branch of the Government a Congressional Office of Science and Technology.” Although the bill was referred to committee and never brought to the floor, Bartlett’s comments were illustrative of widespread concern.
The scientific revolution proceeds faster and faster…and the President, in requesting authority for these vast scientific programs undertaken by the Government,…has available to him the fill advice and counsel of the scientific community. But Congress has no such help…no source of independent scientific wisdom and advice. Far too often congressional committees for expert advice rely upon the testimony of the very scientists who have conceived the program, the very scientists who will spend the money if the program is authorized and appropriated for.
For Bartlett, the conclusion was that “Congress as a body must equip itself to legislate on technological matters with coherence and comprehension.”
Members of Congress also repeatedly pointed to their disadvantage as not being formally trained in the sciences. For instance, the ranking Republican of the Science, Research and Development Subcommittee, Charles Mosher, noted in a 1966 interview, “It’s obvious that we are in a different position from the members of most committees [who] are dealing with subjects on which the whole human race has had some experience.” Indeed, with reference to fellow committee member, Michigan Democrat, Weston Vivian, a PhD scientist, he noted how “Dr. Vivian, with his engineering background, is the exception to the rule; the manner in which he has been able to probe the expert witnesses has been a revelation to me.
This desire to equip the Congress to defend against the executive branch advantages set the Science, Research and Development subcommittee agenda through the mid-1960s. In the initial set of hearings held by the committee, Presidential Science Adviser Jerome Wiesner pointed to the need for Congress to improve its scientific and technical advice capabilities, specifically comparing the congressional resources with those available to the president: “I think we have exceeded the congressional ability to deal with what the executive is doing and I think this is something you may well want to deal with in this study of yours.” Chairman Daddario was receptive to Wiesner’s remarks and assured him that his committee would look into the need for a mechanism for improving the Congress’s capabilities for science and technical advice.
From these first hearings forward, the idea of a separate mechanism for advising Congress became a focal point in subcommittee activities. Among the most critical factors governing the subcommittee approach to this issue were the conclusions expressed in a staff study completed in 1964, aptly entitled,”Scientific and Technical Advice for the Congress: Needs and Sources.” The report noted in its opening paragraph that “Congress in the past few years has become increasingly concerned with the problem of obtaining adequate information and advice on subjects of a scientific or technical nature.” Then, reiterating others’ concerns, it went on to observe that one of the primary justifications driving this issue was the fact that an increasingly large percentage of the federal budget was going toward the funding of research and development. The issue of tension between the legislative and executive branches forms a strong undertone to the study. In their initial efforts to assess the matter, for example,”it became clear that one important aspect of the congressional advice problem centered about the relative merits of setting up some body of highly trained scientists or technicians to be responsive primarily, if not solely, to the Congress. “ Although the study found no consensus regarding what type of advisory system should be established, it is clear from their findings that the need to set up some mechanism, independent of the executive branch, was of paramount importance.
Rather than recommending establishment of a new agency, however, the study recommended better utilization of existing resources such as the National Academy of Sciences and the newly established National Academy of Engineering, strengthening committee staffs and the Legislative Reference Service through the addition of technically trained people, and continuing to survey the congressional committees regarding their need for advice. Although no bold action regarding the advice issue was taken at that time, the issue did not disappear. But at this juncture, another area of concern became critical. Reflecting wider trends prevailing in the United States, Daddario and the subcommittee became increasingly concerned with the relationship between technology and the environment. It was from these concerns that the original concept of “technology assessment” (TA) emerged.
Indeed, in its next major report, TA became a primary concern of Daddario’s subcommittee. This concept, although related to efforts of improving advice for the Congress, has its origins in the particular interests of the subcommittee’s chairman. It seems clear that there was more on Daddario’s mind, and indeed more to the subcommittee’s mandate, than merely improving scientific and technical advice available to Congress. In addition to being established for the purpose of coordinating scientific and technical information for the Congress, the Subcommittee on Science, Research and Development was created to take a greater role in directing scientific and technological development. Indeed, in the Subcommittee’s first report, “A Statement of Purpose” from 1963, Chairman Daddario had outlined his view of the subcommittee’s role:
For 150 years the United States could and did depend mainly on ingenuity, industry, independence and pioneering of its people…Then the situation…shifted radically…the new need was technology. But Congress…finds itself squarely faced with the many social, political, and economic side effects created by the current technological revolution…Congress has long promoted science [but]…inevitably serious problems have accompanied progress…Indeed there are those who contend that the galloping technical revolution is threatening to outrun the number of talented people necessary to nourish it, as well as the time needed to plan and direct its course with some degree of wisdom.
Thus, from the beginning, Daddario was interested in moderating or directing the technological revolution. The evolution of the subcommittee’s agenda from coordinating information for Congress to assessing the impact of technology reflected Daddario’s concern with technology as a force that needed more conscious management.
Daddario, however, cannot be characterized as a Luddite swept up in a growing antitechnology movement of the 1960s. Rather, he viewed the greater use of science and application of technology as essential. If anything, he seems to have been more amenable to the idea of the technical fix than to impeding technological development. Support for science was necessary, Daddario maintained, because “new and fundamental knowledge must be obtained in all fields of science if we are to make any real progress towards a better life for our citizens.” He was, however, becoming increasingly concerned with the negative side effects of technological progress, and in particular the deteriorating environment.
This concern prompted Daddario to lead his subcommittee into an exploration of the possibility of a TA mechanism for the Congress, an idea first announced in 1966. After several hearings and commissioned reports, legislation was ready in 1970. Daddario introduced H.R. 17046 on the floor of the House in April 1970:
Mr. Speaker, probably the greatest single force for both good and evil which is abroad in the land today is technology. In large part the destiny of the human race depends on what we choose to make of science and its handmaiden, technology. This is not just an isolated opinion. It is shared by an overwhelming majority of the most thoughtful and best educated people in this Nation.
Then, having stated that the worth of technology depends on “how men handle it,” he went on to describe its impact. “There is scarcely a major existing ill which cannot in some manner be traced to technological application,” he argued, and then added, “nor is there one whose solution does not lie, at least in part, with better managed and better used technology.” Arguing for the need for TA to better manage technology and the environment, he continued, “The most glaring example at the moment is environment….Until we learn really to understand technology–how and when to apply it; how and when not to apply it–we shall never overcome the many, complex difficulties that beset us.” Daddario went on to define TA as ‘the evaluation of the impact of existing, new and developing technologies upon society…to assess both the desirable and the undesirable consequences of such technology…In other words…to give us better mechanisms for anticipating short- and long-range potentials of technology-good and bad.”
Although introduced in 1970, the TA bill did not secure approval of the Rules Committee until 1972 and, in the meantime, the committee worked further to refine the measure. The bill’s path proved to be rocky as suspicion of, and charges against, the idea of TA became more formidable. Signs of this reaction were evident in the early committee hearings.
The element of governmental power and control over private industry, apparently inherent in a TA capability, was not universally applauded. Larry E. Ruff, a professor of economics at the University of California at San Diego, provided some of the most disconcerting testimony the subcommittee was to hear. An unabashed believer in the power of the market to deal with technological problems, Ruff was suspicious of the “micromanaging” nature of the idea of TA. Ruff could not “let pass unchallenged the assumption that TA of the type described above is a useful or even a harmless exercise, or is, indeed possible.”
For him, “The world, and especially human societies, are just too complex and interrelated for anyone, or any committee, to determine the direct and derivative effects of technology, even in the past.” According to Ruff, “to solve our environmental problems we do not need expert assessments or estimates of this type. Rather…you should work on providing what is lacking-the market…by making each polluter pay a fee.
Ruff’s statement was symptomatic of a growing hostility to TA based on the perception that what it really meant was the regulation of technology. Critics of governmental interference in the innovative process began deriding the concept as “technology arrestment” and “technology harassment.” Champions of unfettered technological innovation, especially leaders from industry, feared “harassment by hysterical (and hardly democratic) scientific Philistine, principally from the sinister side of the political spectrum,”while some even went so far as to claim that “TA can subvert the principles at the very heart of democracy.”
Daddario responded rather vehemently to the suggestion that TA was to be the nit-picking regulatory activity that Ruff and others portrayed. Sensitive to charges that TA was really regulation in disguise, Daddario emphasized the value in the information it would provide Congress:
I would think that one of the problems we are having here is that you see assessment as another form of rule and regulation, which, if you were to examine the assessment studies that have been made and the thoughts about it by the committee, is exactly what we do not intend to do….The Congress must have the ability to recognize what the implications are of complicated and scientific and technical ventures in order to be able to develop a program which can be an effective one.
It [the committee] has not said that it is going to regulate every gadget that comes down, but rather look into the very complicated mechanisms which are involved in congressional programs for the purpose of being able to make an assessment of how these programs can work better than they have in the past.
Thus, Daddario and his colleagues, wary of conveying the impression that TA was regulation, began focusing instead on the information value of an independent technology assessment organization for Congress.
In late May 1970, during the final set of hearings to solicit testimony for the legislation, Missouri Democrat James Symington in his opening statement placed the proposed OTA in the middle of the executive-legislative power struggle.
There is a bill before the Congress today which was drafted and introduced by Chairman Daddario of this subcommittee, along with Mr. Mosher…which would establish an Office of TA serving the Congress…because clearly we, as an institution, that is, the Congress, have been gravely uninformed and have lacked sufficient guidance to make really useful and wise decisions in this field in the past. We have tended simply to accede to administration initiatives, which themselves from time to time may have been hastily or inaccurately promoted.
Daddario, too, began highlighting this aspect of a TA body, arguing that the proposed OTA would address the need for independent advice, as well as environmental issues. He then emphasized the role that the OTA would play in redressing the imbalance of federal powers. In his most forceful language on the topic to date, perhaps getting ready for the legislative battle in the House, he stated,
Since 1963, a large portion of the Subcommittee efforts have been to develop avenues of information and advice for the Congress with outside groups. We have recognized the important need for developing independent means of obtaining necessary and relevant technical information for the Congress, without having to depend almost solely on the Executive Branch. In my view, it is only with this capability that Congress can assure its role as an equal branch in our Federal structure.
Establishing the OTA
The House Rules Committee finally cleared the bill for consideration in early 1972. Renamed H.R. 10243, debate began in the House on February 8, 1972. Although the champions of the TA concept had to continue to deal with the specter of regulation in the course of committeework, a new objection emerged. Wary of surrendering power to a new external organization, members of Congress, traditionally jealous in matters of jurisdiction, feared that the proposed office might infringe upon their authority. Representative Delbert Latta, a conservative Ohio Republican and member of the Rules Committee, immediately questioned the policy-making powers of the office, remarking,
the report reads as follows: “The Office would be composed of a policymaking body called the TA Board.” Really “policymaking body” is a poor choice of words, as actually it is not going to be a policymaking body in the real sense of the word, but it is only going to be permitted to make its own rules. It is going to work for this Congress and not be making policy for it.
The new chairman of the Science, Research and Development subcommittee, Georgia Democrat John Davis, who had taken over responsibility for the legislation after Daddario left the House to run, unsuccessfully, for Governor of Connecticut, quickly reassured Latta and the assembled body:
I agree with the gentleman from Ohio. He is absolutely correct. Perhaps “policymaking” was an unhappy choice of words. Certainly it is not contemplated the Office of TA would have any policymaking powers whatsoever with respect to Congress.
Then beginning the general debate, Davis quickly placed the OTA in the role of redressing the imbalance between branches: “It is important to note that the bill is designed to provide informational aid for the Congress, not for the executive branch. The OTA would be at the disposal of any committee of the Congress, but it would not,” he reassured the members,”assume any congressional function–oversight, investigative, or otherwise. It would function entirely in a supplemental fashion.”
Speaking from the Republican side, Charles Mosher of Ohio, the ranking minority member on the Science, Research and Development subcommittee, argued for the office claiming it was essential to buttress the Congress’s position:
Too often, we in the Congress are flying blind–or at least much more in the dark than is necessary or good–to the extent that we do not obtain better information and advice than we now have so as to be more sure of what we are actually doing when we make decisions which involve the use of new technology.
Referring to the deficiencies of Congress, he implored,
Let us face it Mr. Chairman, we in the Congress are constantly outmanned and outgunned by the expertise of the executive agencies. We desperately need a stronger source of professional advice and information, more immediately and entirely responsible to us and responsive to the demands of our own committees, in order to more nearly match those resources in the executive agencies.
Mosher went on to explain that the OTA, unlike the Library of Congress, would not be subject to individual member requests but only to committee requests because “the studies and reports contracted by the OTA will usually be of a much larger, more comprehensive scope, applying major technology decisions that are before a committee.” He then brought up the matter of its autonomy and explained that the Office of Technology Assessment will “perform only staff work for the Congress” and “will not be a decisionmaking body, nor a policymaking body.” “The OTA shall solely be a servant of the Congress; its fundamental function will be to supply us with much more comprehensive, accurate, significant, technical advice and information than is now available to us. It will be created solely to help us do a better job.”
Others who endorsed the bill agreed “that without this kind of assistance, the Congress is going to find itself in the course of time unable to deal with its constitutional responsibilities, and, therefore, it is going to experience a continual erosion of its constitutional authority.”
Some Republican members were leery of the price tag. One was Representative Larry Winn of Kansas, who in the 1970 hearings had expressed his belief in “the great benefit of this piece of legislation,” but argued, “I am trying to get the job done and save five million dollars in some way.” Similarly, Winn’s fellow Republican James Fulton of Pennsylvania had wondered “what the savings might be” if the Library of Congress’s Legislative Reference Service [now Congressional Research Service] could assume the duties of the proposed OTA. These concerns, reflective of critiques being raised today by those who wish to eliminate the OTA, resurfaced in the debate on the bill in 1972.
Iowa Republican H.R. Gross, enjoying a reputation for great frugality during his 26-year tenure and being a member who “made just about every bill manager with a request for federal funds study his bill a little more carefully,” suspected a waste of money: “Mr. Chairman, to hear this bill explained, one would think that the millennium had been achieved or we are on the threshold of the millennium; that the creation of a new board in Government is going to save I do not know how many billions of dollars.”
If it would really save money he said he would favor it. “But,” he argued, “this is going to add one more boondoggling board to what we already have.” Gross questioned whether it would be better to “turn over to the General Accounting Office this TA, and let them hire the few people that would be needed? Why create another board in Government?”
Gross was not alone; the spirit of fiscal restraint moved other members as well. Fellow Republican John H. Rousselot of California agreed with Gross’s complaint: “Somehow the Members of this Congress should begin to come to grips with the problem of controlling this massive expanding bureaucracy that grows all around us here in Washington.” He then asked Davis “if it is not possible to give more adequate staffing to our present congressional space committee that we have right here in the House.”
These comments prompted Davis to rejoin,
The Jurisdiction of the Committee on Science and Astronautics is primarily science and astronautics. The problems that technology poses to our society include problems which affect every committee of the Congress on either side of the Capitol. The fact that you might try to put all of this in the Committee on Science and Astronautics would pose any number of problems which would involve the jurisdictions of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, the Committee on Agriculture, or almost any other committee you might want to name.
The OTA did not become a completely partisan issue, however. Marvin Esch of Michigan, a moderate Republican and a supportive member of the subcommittee, gave a strong endorsement for the OTA, drawing on both themes: the need to better manage technology and the executive-legislative issue.
Then referring specifically to the proposed OTA, Esch stressed, “It should be emphasized that these are informational functions; not functions of control, or even recommendation. These functions are designed to supplement existing systems of acquiring information, such as the hearing system.”And he reiterated, hoping to forestall charges of encroachment on congressional authority, “I emphasize again that the Office of TA is not intended to make recommendations as to what course the Congress should follow, nor to predetermine any issues.”
Earlier in the debate Mosher had attempted to address the notion that existing agencies could perform TA. Attempting to quell such a notion, he reasoned,
Today, there is strong, competent staff help for many of the congressional committees. But I submit that our present staffing does not even pretend to provide, nor could today’s staffs provide, the comprehensive systems analysis assessments of complex technologies, and their consequences, which we are proposing in this legislation, and for which there is a vital need.
Then, in remarks which call to mind the most recent arguments against the OTA, he went on to note, “Also, let us clearly recognize that the Congressional Research Service in the Library of Congress does not and will not provide the assessment services we are proposing in this bill.”
For Mosher it was “very important to recognize that the Office of TA, as proposed in this bill, will be strictly supplemental to the services performed for us by the Congressional Research Service and the General Accounting Office [GAO].” He stressed that, in comparison with existing agencies, the proposed OTA would be “analogous to the GAO and the Library’s Research Service, only in that it will be distinctly an arm of the Congress alone, an instrument for the Congress alone to use, and responsible only to the Congress.”
“Of course,” he assured his colleagues,
we considered carefully whether this TA function should be placed in the already existing GAO or Congressional Research Service, and the evidence was convincing that it should not be. To be effective it should be separate. GAO makes its examinations after the fact, after the water is over the dam. The essence of our bills is to anticipate far more accurately in advance the consequences of our decisions here. And even though the Congressional Library has great competence in many respects, it does not have the type of competence, nor traditionally the thrust, the interests and attitudes intended by this new legislation.
As its champions had presented it, the OTA would assist congressional oversight, help Congress save money, yet remain responsive, responsible, and accountable to the Congress. But Texas Democrat Jack Brooks wanted to be sure of this. He proposed an amendment to bring the office under tighter congressional control. As the last order of business before voting on the bill, the House took up Brooks’ amendment; his argument suggests that without the emphasis on TA for Congress versus the executive branch, this bill would not have passed. Congressmen such as Brooks were receptive to advice for Congress, but if and only if it were strictly under the arm of the legislative branch, and his remarks make this abundantly clear.
“This bill provides for the executive branch to run and control this office,” Brooks asserted. According to the original bill, the president was to appoint four public members to the TA Board (TAB), which was to directly oversee the office and appoint the director. The Congress was also to contribute four members: two from the Senate and two from the House. But with the president having control over the four public members as well as the director of the CRS and the Comptroller General,
Brooks felt that with a total of six on the board under his influence, the office was clearly going to be controlled by the president. He deduced, “So the President then in effect picks out this Director and that gives him 7 to 4. Now, you do not have to be very good to run an agency of that kind when you have got 7 to 4.”
Brooks then offered his alternative of a TAB consisting of five members from each house, three from the majority party and two from the minority, who would then select the director, “and that agency,” he insisted, “will then be responsive to the U.S. Congress, not to the Executive,” He concluded his proposal by saying, “I say that we would be wise if we are going to spend enough money to have 50 or 60 or 70 experts that we, the Congress of the United States, are going to name them.”
Apparently, the assembled members were persuaded as they approved the amendment that changed the makeup of the TA Board from one comprised of four congressmen, the Comptroller General, the head of the CRS, four public members appointed by the president, and the director to a new configuration consisting completely of congressmen. The House then approved the amended bill on a roll call vote of 256-118, with Democrats clearly favoring the bill 180-39, while Republicans were split 76-79. The Senate passed the bill on a voice vote and President Nixon signed the bill into law on October 13, 1972.
Congressional Control Over the Office
Having trouble finding office space, the OTA did not begin operations in earnest until early 1974. As a result of a compromise in a Committee of Conference with the Senate, the TAB was modified to 12 members of Congress, with six from each house and an equal three from each party. The TAB, comprised solely of congressmen, became in effect a bipartisan joint committee overseeing the office and its director. Recognized within Congress as the “father” of the TA concept, Daddario’s appointment as the OTA’s first director came as a surprise to no one.
Because input of leaders from the scientific and technical communities was critical to the original concept of TA it was also agreed in Conference that advice from experts outside of government would be provided by a newly devised TA Advisory Council (TAAC). The relationship between the TAB and the TAAC did not prove to be one of an equal partnership, however. The TAB, comprised of congressmen, continued to view the OTA as a repository of independent information untainted by the executive branch. Thus, rather than allowing the OTA to launch into a bold new intellectual and governmental adventure, the TAB kept tight reins on the OTA from the beginning.
Recalling the jealousy over potential policy making by the OTA expressed during the floor debate, the TAB immediately limited the TAAC’s role. It became clear from the outset that securing public input for choosing assessment topics and thus influencing the nation’s technology policy was to be secondary to the primary role of the OTA: providing objective information for congressional committees. In the first joint meeting of the TAB and TAAC, congressional control became apparent. After the members of the TAAC began discussing various ideas, including improving environmental policy, Mosher, serving as the first Vice-Chairman of the TAB, cut them back:
Apropos of what you gentlemen are saying…I hope we are all aware of one fundamental fact on TA and, in fact the Advisory Council, that neither of these bodies is in itself considered to be a policy-making body. I hope we all understand that. The Congress would immediately rebel if there is any indication that the Office of TA is going to be making policy decisions…We are only aides to the Congress and to the legislative process…we are going to have to be extremely careful in the assessment jobs we take on.
It became clear that the office was not to make policy and that the TAAC was not to be responsible for coming up with ideas for TAs, but was rather to serve as “a sounding board for advice” on topics culled from congressional committees. Instead of canvassing the TAAC for ideas, the first item of business was a survey of congressional staffs to get “an idea of their priorities for legislation.” Republican TAB member, Senator Clifford Case, was quite concerned that the office remain responsive to Congress by keeping committees informed on the status of their requests for assessments. For those who had held high hopes of the OTA providing a channel for public input into technology policy, early developments were not promising. Rather than serving as a “monitoring”: and “early warning” agent to alert Congress to adverse technological developments, as Daddario had originally envisioned the concept, request for specific TAs were coming from Congress itself and the office’s main order of business shortly became providing technical advice as requested, ad hoc, by members of Congress. But even in this capacity of offering supportive, if subservient, advice on topics already chosen, the TAAC’s role was quickly reduced. In fact, the TAB precluded its input into the selection of the very first assessment.
The first report the office undertook was a study on the viability of generic drugs. The process through which the TAB approved this study was an inauspicious beginning for those who had been resting their hopes on the OTA as a conduit for public input into technology policy. The TAB’s first chairman, Senator Edward Kennedy, proposed the study in order to help his Health and Scientific Research subcommittee in the Senate resolve an argument between drug manufacturers and administration experts who had provided contradictory testimony regarding whether or not alternative, generic drugs could in fact be produced. The original plan had been to wait for TAAC’s input into proposed TAs before approving them, but when Daddario informed the group that the TAAC was not scheduled to meet for another month, Kennedy and the others were reluctant to wait. Senator Ernest Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, became the most adamant. “It’s ridiculous,” he exclaimed. Why are we waiting on all this staff stuff…why don’t we approve of that and just get going?” Daddario, anxious to get under way and placate his congressional bosses, accommodated the board, “Senator, so far as the advisory committee is concerned, I don’t think we ought to wait before going ahead.”
In contrast to the quickly diminishing association with the TAAC, relationships with congressional committees and their staffs were nurtured and their inputs and received a different priority. At the very next meeting, Daddario responded to an inquiry from Senator Case in this regard, assuring him that
participation in the assessment process by the interested congressional staffs…is an integral part of the activity…[and] there will be a constant involvement not only at the congressional level but at the staff levels in these, so that there can be a direct relationship to committee activities, committee hearings and the like.
This marginalization of the TAAC led to the resignation of its chair man, Harold Brown, then the President of the California Institute of Technology, in 1975. And although promises of improving public input were made, the reality never corresponded to the original TA concept, i.e., that leaders from the scientific and technological communities would keep “tabs” on technological developments and make assessments as to whether or not such technologies should be pursued. Instead, right from the beginning, the OTA was tightly reined in by its congressional overseers. Rather than assessing the consequences of alternative paths of technological development, parity of information among branches of government remained a main concern. In this context, at one of the first TAB meetings, Senator Hubert Humphrey saw the value of the OTA as placing the Congress “in a position to at least give the executive branch, as it comes up with a program, some healthy competition of ideas.” Similarly, the office was defended on those grounds in front of the Appropriations Committee by Kennedy:
The purpose of the Office is to provide Congress with its own technical expertise…. Over the past two decades the executive branch’s capability in science and technology has grown immensely, while the ability of Congress to evaluate such programs has stumbled along at a snail’s pace.
Drawing the office into the power struggle exacerbated by Watergate, he averred,
Mr. Chairman I believe that recent events have indicated to members of both houses the need to strengthen the Congress to meet its responsibilities, now and in the decades ahead. The Office of TA is a vital resource to assist Congress in achieving that goal.
In its early years, the office evolved into an on-demand advice mechanism for Congress as opposed to developing into a more autonomous agent for contributing to a coherent technology policy. Originally, TA was to provide expert input from the outside in order to inform policy making. With the TAB in control, however, topics for TA in the OTA were picked by “insiders” and outside experts were consulted only in a post hoc manner. They were asked to provide input on topics that had already been decided by congressional committee chairmen and the congressmen on the board.
Thus stripped of its autonomy and managed in its formative years by Daddario, who had to remain sensitive to congressional committee chairmen in the TAB and in Congress at large, the OTA’s purview remained limited. Although OTA produced studies that were acclaimed for their objectivity and balance, they were not nearly as far-ranging as the original advocates of “assessment” had hoped. In fact, they did not come close to resembling the broad monitoring function that the early plans for the office had envisioned.
In 1977 Daddario resigned as OTA director and was eventually succeeded by Russell Petersen, a former Governor of Delaware. Under its second director, OTA tried to branch out and assume a more assertive role and was nearly eliminated. Petersen, an active environmentalist, tried to move the OTA back toward the concept and make the office a policy informing organization bringing facts and ideas to the Congress from the outside. As one of his first orders of business, Petersen developed a “priorities list” of prospective assessment topics. But seeking greater autonomy for the office did not sit well with his congressional overseers, and his tenure proved to be brief, lasting scarcely a year.
After Petersen departed to head the National Audubon Society John Gibbons, a respected physicist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and former head of the Energy, Environment and Resources Center at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, was brought in for what many on the inside realized was OTA’s last chance. Taking over in 1979, Gibbons achieved gains in bureaucratic reform, such as ending cost overruns, but more importantly, he brought the office back into the role of unbiased servant of Congress and away from the Petersen plan of a more independent policy input. Under Gibbons the office increased its reputation as a competent, loyal and responsive information agency for Congress, as evidenced by a newly implemented “annual survey of committee needs.” Emphasizing “advice on tap,” Gibbons won praise for his stabilization of the office, directing it not towards advocacy but toward reliable information source for Capitol Hill during his 14-year tenure.
One brief controversy illustrates the difficulties that TA would engender if the office tried to “assess” rather than just provide objective information on contentious issues. In 1984, the “Star Wars” debate injected the OTA into the center of a scientific-technical controversy similar to the ABM and SST struggles.
In the ABM and SST affairs, expert opinions were believed to be tainted. Suspicions were confirmed when President Nixon abolished the Presidential Science Advisory Committee in January, 1973. Nixon had become upset with what he perceived as insubordination to the Administration’s proABM and proSST positions by advisers who opposed the programs before Congress. During the Reagan Administration, the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars” missile defense issue arose in an almost identical manner as the ABM controversy. Not only was the technology at issue similar, i.e., missile defense systems, but, not surprisingly, the same kinds of political issues emerged: the prevailing balance of powers, violation of treaties, and the question of whether the project was in fact technically and economically feasible. Here, as did the science advisers under Nixon, the OTA came out against the administration’s position. The OTA itself became a partisan issue that year when the administration charged that the office exposed sensitive defense secrets.
The charges did not hold up, and the OTA overcame this scare.
Subsequently, however, it largely steered clear of contentious issues and assumed its role more as a low-profile respondent to congressional requests under Gibbons, who remained at the OTA until 1993. After Gibbons was named Science Advisor to President Clinton, Roger Herdman, a former Vice President of the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, took over the reins at the OTA. Continuing the pattern established by Gibbons, the office has been enjoying a reputation as a provider of widely recognized high-quality, if less controversial, studies.
Although the OTA has moved away from the proactive approach envisioned by early champions of TA, it has nevertheless evolved in a way very much in accord with the expressed desires of those on Capitol Hill. In so doing, it has kept out of controversy or even advocacy, but now, precisely because of its responsiveness to Congress and a less far-ranging approach, the criticism that its duties can be performed by another agency has resurfaced. Twenty-five years ago, officials at the CRS, then called the Legislative Reference Service (LRS), were asked if LRS or the GAO could perform technology assessment. In light of current concerns, it is worthwhile to examine their responses.
During the committee hearings setting up OTA, the director of the LRS, Lester Jayson, foresaw cost advantages in locating the entire TA function within the Library of Congress which housed the LRS. He believed that the LRS had the necessary experience in that “studies of specific technologies and their impacts on society are routinely performed by LRS as a part of its fiction of advising the Congress on scientific and technological matters.” He also noted the GAO had also “conducted reviews and analyses” similar to that of TA, and thus, he believed, “either agency or both could reasonably serve as repository for the proposed expanded function of TA.”
Savings to the overall federal budget could be achieved, he felt, through reducing overhead costs such as building, equipment, and administration by utilizing one staff instead of two, particularly insofar as senior staff were concerned. He summarized these types of cost advantages with the simple formula, “two agencies require more support than one.”
Although he believed at the time that the LRS “would need still further enlargement to carry out the additional functions of contract administration implicit in an OTA operation as we understand it,” he did feel that staff expansion in the Library of Congress was feasible by building on “the present LRS team of specialists as the nucleus of an organization.” This was possible, he reasoned, because this group was “already familiar with the broad scope of subject matter,” and thus “provides something substantial to build on.”
But Jayson also acknowledged some disadvantages of incorporating TA into the LRS: “It should be pointed out, however, that the prospect of assigning complete TA function to LRS would not be without serious costs and disadvantages.” He cited that,
any assessment of serious portent is sure to be controversial. LRS has no history of having to survive public exposure of its assessments. It has not had to be accountable to the public. It has no experience in having to defend itself against interests that would endeavor to modify or suppress studies….LRS has not provided testimony, made substantive recommendations as to priorities or criticized the Executive Agencies before Congressional Committees.
Bearing in mind the “great increase in public exposure of LRS,” Jayson worried that “on matters of great moment, high economic impact, and intense emotional feeling bias will be imputed to the most objective of statements.” In his opinion, any agency thrown into such a mix “must command respect, enjoy durable public support, and operate under the protection of insulation from powerful dissident factions and their political supporters.”He quickly added, “No agency of government possesses all these attributes.” He closed,
Conceivably, the LOC–specifically, the LRS–by the exercise of discretion in its choice of initial tasks, reliance on its established reputation for objectivity, and selection of additional personnel of highest professional prestige and qualifications, could achieve a solid credibility for its output.
When a TA mechanism was first considered, it seemed apparent in light of issues like the ABM and SST controversies, that it would be thrust into the midst of contentious issues. As it has evolved, however, the OTA has been received most favorably by its congressional bosses when it has avoided positions of advocacy and served, instead, as a less politically charged information source for congressional committees. Therefore, it seems that the drawbacks cited against injecting a potentially politically controversial organization into the Congressional Research Service no longer seem relevant.
Dilemma for the OTA
This is the crux of OTA’s ongoing problem: In order to earn a reputation for being unbiased, it has had to dodge controversies, into which, 25 years ago it seemed the OTA would be thrown, but in not being so involved, the OTA “risks becoming invisible.” Moreover, since the OTA generally is not injected into such controversial issues and, indeed, has been historically criticized for that, Jayson’s reasons as to why the LRS could not take on controversial issues now seem moot. The noncontroversial posture of the OTA is not the result of timidity within the OTA, however, but results from the fact that the office was designed as an information source independent of the executive branch and “responsive and responsible to Congress” and has operated as such. It has had to be careful not to upstage Congress by attempting to make policy. And, as it was set up by Congress with the idea of shoring up the Legislative branch in the three branch system, information for, and responsiveness to, Congress became the primary force in its formative period. Thus, the congressional overseers on the TAB have chosen the assessments. But this status and role as information agent places the OTA in a difficult position. As it has become a more information-oriented agency, as opposed to a policy advocate “assessing” alternatives, it now more closely resembles the CRS than it did in its hypothetical stage 25 years ago. This has left the office in a difficult position when faced, as it is now, with fiscally-motivated plans to abolish it.
Pennsylvania Republican Robert Walker, the new chair of the House Science Committee, has announced that if the OTA is to remain, its studies must be more short-term and responsive to the appropriations process. This, however, would completely abandon any remaining vestiges of the original TA idea still present in the OTA. Unlike the CRS, OTA studies remain of a more long-term nature. If, indeed, the desire is to make the OTA replicate the CRS, then the critics will have foreordained the OTA’s elimination. There will be nothing left to separate OTA work from the kind of things CRS is commissioned to do. Moreover, transformed in this way, TA will have nothing in common with the idea as it was envisioned when the office was established. Although OTA has already considerably departed from the original idea, placing such time constraints on its work would be the end. If there is a problem with the office, it is not because it is an agency that is unresponsive to Congress; that hurdle has been crossed during the course of the OTA development. If Congress has a continued concern over its responsiveness, the timeliness of its studies, or the scale and scope of its reports, it arises as a result of the last traces of the original TA concept office’s approach. If these traces are removed, there no longer appears to be a rationale for an office separate from the CRS.
Obviously, this presents the OTA with a problem in confronting a conservative Congress bent on reducing expenditures, as well as having an inclination to oppose anything smacking of industrial policy. In a classic Catch-22, the obvious defense of the office will likely lead to its demise.
On the one hand, if it claims to be more than an objective information agency, tending toward a more autonomous or assertive role with respect to technology policy, it would apparently be doomed in the face of Republican control of both houses. On the other hand, if it justifies itself solely as a provider of timely advice, as Republicans seemingly desire, then it is hard to argue that an office beyond the CRS is really necessary.
In terms of immediate outlook, the OTA’s future likely depends on whether or not it can successfully persuade its congressional judges that the organizational capability it has achieved over the past two decades for providing technical advice will be hard to match. Historically, however, the OTA is best understood as a part of the broader congressional reforms of the 1970s, the most visible of which were the War Powers Act in 1973 and the creation of the Congressional Budget Office in 1974. This suggests that if the office is to prevail, its advocates should sell the office, as proponents did back in 1972, and argue that Congress needs a scientific and technical advice mechanism independent of the president that can only adequately be provided by the more long-term outlook of the OTA’s studies.
In addition to the individual fate of the OTA, a move to eliminate it may have broader historical ramifications. At its founding in 1972, the OTA was only the third independent congressional agency ever established. In many ways, it represented a bold move by Congress and the first step of the reformist 1970s–a period in which “Congressional politics had undergone considerable change” and a decade in which “Congress studied itself more…than at any time in its history.” This scrutiny also led to reforms, but in order for reforms to occur, “conditions must be right, and the most important [condition] appears to be the perception among members that the institutional authority is threatened.” Rather than a new foray into assessing technology, Congress established the OTA in order to shore up legislative branch powers. Although the War Powers Act and the Congressional Budget Office are, perhaps, more visible signs of the changes that took place in congressional-presidential relations in the 1970s, it seems clear from the history of the OTA that the underlying causes which gave rise to the institution place it firmly in this pattern. And, given its early beginnings, which predate the two above-named acts, the agitation for increasing Congress’s scientific and technical capability–and the resultant process that culminated in the OTA–place it at the beginning of this sea-change in legislative-executive relations.
Thus the question of eliminating the OTA becomes certainly not one of reducing regulation, since the office never became the assertive policy influence favored by some, but one of cutting back one of the institutional reforms begun to countermand a perceived and very real encroachment on the legislature by “the imperial presidency.” And, in that case, the scaling back of OTA may have broader implications for the roles of the respective branches of government in the tripartite federal system.
. . . . .
Gregory C. Kunkle is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Lehigh University writing his dissertation on the Office of Technology Assessment. In addition to teaching courses in the history of technology and the interaction of science, technology, and society, Kunkle has recently written an article on the history of the electron microscope, which appears in Technology and Culture (Winter, 1995).
1.The New York Times (December 6, 1994), p. Al; N. Gingrich, Contract With America (New York: Times Books, 1994).
2. Quoted in J. Mervis, Technology Assessment Faces Ax,” Science Vol. 266 (December 9, 1994), p. 1636.
3. United States Congress, House Committee on Science and Astronautics, “Panel on Science and Technology, Fifth Annual Meeting, Proceedings,” U.S. 88th Congress, 1st Session (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1963), p. 37.
4. Ibid., p. 38.
5. U.S. Congress, House Committee on Science and Astronautics, Subcommittee on Science, Research, and Development, “A Statement of Purpose: The First Progress Report of the Subcommittee on Science, Research and Development,” U.S. 88th Congress, 1st Session (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1963), pp. 12-14.
6. U.S. Congress, House Committee on Science and Astronautics, Subcommittee on Science, Research, and Development, “Government and Science, No. 8: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Science Research and Development,” U.S. 88th Congress, 1st Session (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1963), p. 32.
7. 1963 is an important year. While in 1962 the NASA budget passed unanimously, in Spring of the next year, the first major opposition to the space program emerged because of the rapidly expanding NASA budget. Indeed, historian and former member of the Science and Astronautics Committee, K. Hechler, has termed this period the “end of the Honeymoon.” U.S. Congress, House Committee on Science and Astronautics, K Hechler, “Toward the Endless Frontier,” U.S. 96th Congress, 2nd Session (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980), p. 124.
8. Senate, Congressional Record (August 13, 1963), pp. 14809-14810.
9. “The View From Congress,” International Science and Technology Vol. 57 (September 1966), p. 70.
10. U.S. Congress, House Committee on Science and Astronautics, Subcommittee on Science, Research, and Development, “Government and Science, No. 3, Scientific and Technical Advice for the Congress: Needs and Sources,” U.S. 88th Congress, 2nd Session (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office 1964).
11. The other reason cited was the “forceful impact of science and technology upon our contemporary civilization.” Ibid., p. 1. 12. Ibid., p. 3, emphasis added.
13. U.S. Congress, House Committee on Science and Astronautics, Subcommittee on Science, Research and Development, “Inquiries, Legislation, Policy Studies Re: Science and Technology: The Second Progress Report of the Subcommittee on Science, Research and Development,” U.S. 89th Congress, 2nd Session (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966).
14. United States Congress, “A Statement of Purpose,” op. cit. (1963), pp. 1-2.
15. Daddario was consistently viewed by the scientific community as an ally, a perception due especially to his oversight of NSF and he worked hard at maintaining his reputation, earning him the informal title of “Mr. Science” in the House. United States Congress, K Hechler, “Toward the Endless Frontier,” op. cit. (1980) p. 147.
16. The idea was first mentioned in a committee report. United States Congress, House Committee on Science and Astronautics, Subcommittee on Science, Research and Development, “Inquires, Legislation Policy Studies Regarding Science and Technology: The Second Progress Report of the Subcommittee on Science Research and Development,” U.S. 89th Congress, 2nd Session (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office 1966), pp. 27-28.
17. House, Congressional Record (April 16, 1970), p. 12110.
18. U.S. Congress, House Committee on Science and Astronautics, Subcommittee on Science, Research and Development, “Technology Assessment and the Environment: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Science, Research and Development,” U.S. 91st Congress, 2nd Session (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970), pp. 361-364
19. Leon Green of Lockheed Corporation and William O. Baker of Bell Laboratories, quoted in D. Medford, Environmental Harassment or Technology Assessment (New York: Elsevier, 1973), p. 52. 20. United States Congress, “Technology Assessment and the Environment,” op. cit. (1970), p. 372. 21: Ibid., p. 794.
22. Ibid., pp. 739-740.
23. House, Congressional Record (February 8, 1972), p. 3201.
24. Ibid., p. 3203.
25. Ibid., p. 3208.
26. U.S. Congress, House Committee on Science and Astronautics, Subcommittee on Science, Research and Development, “Technology Assessment Hearings on H.R. 17046,” U.S. 91st Congress, 2nd Session (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office 1970), p. 18,53.
27. M. Barone, G. Ujifusa, and D. Matthews, The Almanac of American Politics 1978 (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977), p. 292. 28. House, Congressional Record (February 8, 1972), p. 3213.
29. Ibid., p. 3214.
30. Ibid., p. 3215.
31. Ibid., p. 3217.
32. Ibid., p. 3203. Notice, however, that in this context Mosher was talking about a more broad ranging, systems-analysis based technology assessment and not just an independent advice mechanism. This distinction and its importance for the contemporary OTA will be addressed below.
33. Ibid., p. 3203.
34. Ibid., p. 3220.
35. The Office of Technology Assessment, “Minutes of the Joint TAB-TAAC Meeting,” (Washington, DC, January 24, 1974) pp. 40-41. 36. Ibid., p. 59.
37. The Office of Technology Assessment, “Minutes of the Technology Assessment Board Meeting,” (Washington, DC, February 6, 1974), p. 75.
38. Ibid., p. 51.
39. Office of Technology Assessment,”Minutes of Technology Assessment Board Meeting,” (Washington, DC, February 20, 1974), p. 5.
40. Office of Technology Assessment,”Minutes of Technology Assessment Board Meeting,” (Washington, DC, February 6, 1974), pp. 41-42.
41. Quoted in “Minutes of Technology Assessment Board Meeting” (March 6, 1974).
42. Office of Technology Assessment,”Minutes of Technology Assessment Board Meeting,” (Washington, DC, November 4, 1977 and January 31, 1979). Petersen also desired to increase input from citizens groups like the Sierra Club, R. Petersen, speech delivered on May 9, 1978, File #0238, Information Center, Office of Technology Assessment, Washington, DC.
43. The OTA’s troubles were compounded by political controversies surrounding Board Member Ted Kennedy who was charged with trying to appoint his long time assistant and Program Manager at the OTA Ellis Mottur, to the vacant directorship created by Daddario’s departure. Thomas Southwick, “Hill Technology Assessment Office Hit by Controversy” Congressional Quarterly (June 18, 1977), pp. 1202-1203. The controversy subsided after Mottur withdrew from consideration and later resigned from the OTA. Office of Technology Assessment, “Minutes of Technology Assessment Board Meeting: (Washington, DC, May 8, 1978).
44. Office of Technology Assessment,”Minutes of Technology Assessment Board Meeting,” (Washington, DC, September 12, 1979), p. 1.
45. See G. Herken, Cardinal Choices: Presidential Science Advising from the Atomic Bomb to SDI (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 165-179. 46. “Minutes of Technology Assessment Board Meetings,” (September 12, 1985). M. S. Warner, “Reassessing the Office of Technology Assessment,” an unpublished paper prepared for The Heritage Foundation, provides a summary critical of the OTA’s conduct. File #0240, Information Center, Office of Technology Assessment, Washington, DC.
47. “Minutes of Technology Assessment Board Meeting,” (June 21, 1988).
48. United States Congress, “Technology Assessment Hearings on H.R. 17046,” op. cit. (1970), p. 54. 49. Ibid., p. 55.
50. E. Wenk quoted by Jayson, Ibid., p. 55.
51. Ibid., p. 56.
52. L. Branscomb quoted in Mervis, Technology Assessment Faces Ax,” op. cit., p. 1636.
53. The OTA has been criticized for staying out of defense issues, see B. Casper, “The Rhetoric and The Reality of Congressional Technology Assessment,” in T. J. Kuehn and A. L. Porter (eds. ), Science, Technology, and National Policy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1981), pp. 315-345. Chairman of the TAAC Harold Brown, also leveled this charge at the OTA from the inside, “Report of Working Papers of the TAAC on TA priorities,” (10 June 1975), File #0352, Information Center, Office of Technology Assessment, Washington, DC.
54. R. S. Walker, Press Conference (Washington, DC, December 14, 1994).
55. C. O. Jones, The Trusteeship Presidency: Jimmy Carter and the United States Congress (Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 1988), p. 46.
56. Ibid., p. 57.
57. Ibid., p. 57. See also C. O. Jones, The United States Congress: People, Places, and Policy (Homewood, IL: Brooks-Cole,1982) and L. Reiselbach, Congressional Reform in the Seventies (Morristown, NJ: General Learning Publishing, 1977).
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