Congress Lacks Technical Knowledge

Luke Rosiak | The Cutting Edge | June 6, 1012

“High turnover and lack of experience in congressional offices are leaving staffs increasingly without policy and institutional knowledge, a Washington Times analysis of a decade of House and Senate personnel records shows — leaving a vacuum that usually is filled by lobbyists,” according to this blog post.

As policy questions more frequently hinge on the nuances of technical matters, members of Congress are operating without the researchers and topical experts on which they have relied to cast informed votes. With the shuttering of the Office of Technology Assessment, a 200-member congressional support agency that closed in 1995 under House Speaker Newt Gingrich, members who are largely lawyers and rhetorical masters are asked to differentiate between competing proposals that only scientists might be able to evaluate effectively.

The technology office researched and summarized scientific and technological matters, ranging from acid rain to wireless phones, for members who, with an average age of 64 in the Senate and 58 in the House, are legislating on matters such as the Internet, which most spent much of their lives without. Typical of its work products was a decades-ago warning on the effect of technology on copyright law, a question lawmakers contentiously grappled with this year. “It helped us to … better oversee the science and technology programs within the federal establishment,” said then-Rep. Amo Houghton, New York Republican, who served nine terms before retiring in 2005. The role of CRS, which provides research on topics beyond science and technology, has also been rolled back.

OTA published several reports about technology and copyright law, including: Copyright and Home Copying: Technology Challenges the Law, Finding A Balance: Computer Software, Intellectual Property and the Challenge of Technological Change, and Intellectual Property Rights in an Age of Electronics and Information.

Records show that a many congressional staff leave for better paying positions at lobbying firms,  where they prepare policy papers to influence their former colleagues – but with the interests of their new employers in mind, according to the article.

“Staff are incredibly vulnerable to this,” according to Daniel Schuman, a former Congressional Research Service (CRS) lawyer who now studies policy at the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation.  “They’re trying to do a very complicated job with limited resources.”