By Colin Norman
The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) has endured a long, hot summer, and the autumn may not bring much relief. Since it was established in 1973 to provide Congress with analyses of technical issues, OTA has been criticized for a variety of sins of omission and commission. But during the past few months, the Office has been turned into a battleground for partisan politics. Though the dispute has been concerned more with the style of OTA’s operation than with the quality of work, a few serious questions are being raised about the Office’s future role and responsibilities.
The trouble began when Emilio Q. Daddario, OTA’s founder and for the past three and a half years its Director, announced his intention to resign. Dr. Daddario had long said that he intended to stay at OTA only long enough to get the Office under way, and his resignation should have evoked neither undue surprise nor cries of foul deeds. Nevertheless, a few days after the announcement, William Safire–a former speechwriter for Richard Nixon, now a conservative columnist for the New York Times–wrote a column claiming that Dr. Daddario had been ousted by Senator Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.), Chairman of OTA’s Congressional Governing Board. The move, said Mr. Safire, was prelude to an attempt by Senator Kennedy to “take over” OTA. Mr. Safire said Senator Kennedy planned to install his own aide, Ellis Mottur, in the Director’s chair and would then use OTA as an extension of his personal staff.
The source of those allegations, it turned out, was Representative Marjorie Holt, a conservative Republican from Maryland who was Vice Chairman of OTA’s Governing Board. Within a week of Dr. Daddario’s resignation, Representative Holt also quit, firing off a letter to Senator Kennedy saying that she could no longer have any influence on OTA’s policies because the Board was so dominated by Senator Kennedy and his allies.
A week later another member of OTA’s Congressional Board, Senator Richard Schweiker (R.-Penn.), also resigned. Senator Schweiker said he was quitting simply because his other Senatorial duties had grown and he no longer had time to attend to OTA affairs. Though the move was not inspired by political differences or by concern at the direction OTA is taking, it is nevertheless telling. Senators and Congresspeople are not in the habit of resigning from committees which give them influence or political visibility, and Senator Schweiker evidently felt that the OTA Board provides neither of those attributes.
The third blow fell late in July, when a conference committee finally agreed on a budget bill for the Legislative Branch for fiscal year 1978. The bill included a cut of about $1.6 million in the budget requested for OTA, and a decree that the Office’s staff should be pruned. OTA will have a budget of just over $7 million next year. The move indicates that OTA has yet to establish its utility to the people who count most on Capitol Hill–the appropriations committees.
Timid and Trivial?
The upsets followed critical reports on OTA last year. The first, from the House Commission on Information and Facilities, said that OTA’s internal management was in a mess and there was a good deal of confusion about the Office’s role. That was followed by the resignation of Harold Brown, now President Carter’s Secretary of Defense, as Chairman of OTA’s Advisory Council, an independent body which provides policy advice to the OTA Board and Director. In his letter of resignation, Mr. Brown offered some words of praise for OTA, but suggested that it had become bogged down in trivial studies and had neglected its primary role of providing Congress with an early warning system on the potential side effects of new technology. In addition, there has been some carping from outside OTA to the effect that the Office has been too timid in its choice of issues and that it has really been providing policy analysis instead of technology assessment.
Before examining those complaints, it is worth reviewing the origins of OTA and its goals.
OTA sprang from discussions in the mid-1960s between Dr. Daddario, then a Congressman from Connecticut and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Science, Research and Technology, and a number of scientists including Jerome Wiesner, President of M.I.T. The basic idea was that Congress lacked the technical expertise to match the Executive Branch on technological issues, and a body to provide technical advice to legislative committees was badly needed. Dr. Daddario translated the idea into legislation, and Congress eventually approved a bill establishing OTA in 1973. By that time, Dr. Daddario had left Congress to make a bid for the Governorship of Connecticut, and he was named the first Director of OTA.
The legislation decreed that OTA should be managed by a Congressional Board consisting of six Senators and six Representatives, with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. Senator Kennedy was elected the Board’s first Chairman; he was followed by Olin Teague, Chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, and the chairmanship reverted back to Senator Kennedy earlier this year. In addition, the legislation established an independent Advisory Council to provide policy advice for OTA. When Harold Brown resigned from the Council last year, Dr. Wiesner was elected Chairman.
So much for the organizational arrangements. What was OTA supposed to be doing? OTA is a creature of the Congress; it was established to provide advice to Congressional committees when asked, and it must tailor its product to fit the requirements of legislators. This immediately raises a problem, for Congress is usually concerned with immediate issues, and requires quick answers, while OTA is supposed to take a long-term view. It is therefore not surprising that much of OTA’s work has consisted of relatively straightforward policy analysis tied to specific pieces of legislation.
In fact, some of OTA’s most widely praised studies have not been technology assessments, according to a strict definition of the term. OTA put together some quick analyses of the Ford and Carter administrations’ energy policies which have been credited with eliciting more funds for conservation technologies, for example. It has also produced reports on the bioequivalency of supposedly identical drugs made by different companies, a review of the research and development programs of the Environmental Protection Agency, and a study of computer policies in the Internal Revenue Service. All of those studies were essentially policy analyses but they were the kind of thing that Congress was interested in.
Of the larger studies which conform more closely to technology assessment, only one is significant: a massive investigation of the consequences of expanding offshore oil production along the Atlantic coast, a study which involved considerable public input, identified many potential problems and issues, and attracted a good deal of attention.
So far, OTA has produced more than 40 reports and, though the office has received a lot of criticism, nobody has taken a good look at the products to see whether they have been influential or of reasonable quality. Two such studies are about to be undertaken. First, OTA’s Advisory Council is beginning an investigation of the Office’s functions, its impact, and the quality of its work. The study, which was requested by the board at the instigation of Senator Kennedy, has been one of the irritants in the latest round of disputes concerning OTA.
The second study will be conducted by the House Committee on Science and Technology this fall. The Committee is planning a series of public hearings at which some of OTA’s critics, including Representative Holt, are expected to testify. The objective, according to committee staff, is simply to review OTA’s record so far, but it is likely to provide a public forum for some of OTA’s critics.
And that brings us to the latest charges that Senator Kennedy is trying to take over OTA. Way back in 1973, when OTA was just organized, an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal suggesting that Senator Kennedy was about to use OTA to build up his power base for the 1976 Presidential election. Should the latest accusations be given any more credence?
Senator Kennedy certainly dominates OTA’s Congressional Board. His views usually carry the day, and on the few occasions when there has been a vote on a major question, the majority has sided with Senator Kennedy while the dissenters have been Representative Holt, her two fellow House Republicans, and Olin Teague. One reason why Senator Kennedy has been so influential is that he is perhaps the most active and interested member of OTA’s Board (witness, for example, Senator Schweiker’s statement that he no longer has time for OTA affairs). But Senator Kennedy’s critics charge that his influence stems chiefly from another source: he has some of his own staff aides working for OTA, and he has close connections with Dr. Wiesner.
In fact, most of the Senate members of the OTA Board has some of their own staff aides working for OTA, a situation which has raised complaints from a few other OTA officials, who see the political appointees as inconsistent with OTA’s supposedly non-partisan role. As for the complaints about the link between Senator Kennedy and Dr. Wiesner, Dr. Wiesner was not appointed by Kennedy (contrary to some published accounts), but was elected by other council members. The election, moreover, took place when Representative Teague, not Senator Kennedy, was Chairman of OTA’s Board
Another possible reason for the dispute over Senator Kennedy’ role is pure partisan politics. Senator Kennedy, a liberal Democrat, is always a prime target for conservative Republicans, and this case is no exception.
Representative Holt’s resignation followed three differences of opinion with Senator Kennedy on OTA’s Board. The first concerned a vacancy on the Advisory Committee. J. Fred Bucy, an executive of Texas Instruments, was up for reappointment to the Council but Senator Kennedy objected, criticizing Mr. Bucy’s record of attendance during his first term of office. Representative Holt charged that Senator Kennedy’s objections stemmed from differences of opinion on several matters of policy. The second irritant was Senator Kennedy’s proposal that the Advisory Council should conduct a review of OTA’s operations, a review which Representative Holt believed would be biased because of the Council’s alleged close links with Senator Kennedy. And third, Representative Holt objected to Senator Kennedy’s proposal that OTA should do a quick study of the data which led to the proposed ban on saccharin. Representative Holt said that the review would add nothing to the debate and charged that Senator Kennedy only wanted a study which would support his own position. Representative Holt was defeated on all three issues, and subsequently resigned from the Board.
All of these spats mask the central question about OTA: is it performing useful functions, and is it having any impact on congressional operations? OTA staffers point to a sack of press clippings and comments from members of Congress praising its work, but there are few issues on which OTA can claim to have had decisive influence. The reviews by the Advisory Council and the House Committee on Science and Technology should, however, provide some real information on the quality and impact of OTA’s operations–though there is also the danger that the House Committee hearings may degenerate to yet another exchange of partisan rhetoric.
Meanwhile, a replacement for Dr. Daddario as Director of OTA is being sought, and an appointment is expected soon.
Copyright ©1977, Technology Review. All rights reserved.
Colin Norman is a Research Associate at Worldwatch Institute. He was Washington correspondent for Nature and is a regular contributor to Technology Review.