Death by Congressional Ignorance

By M. Granger Morgan
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
August 2, 1995

How the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment–Small and Excellent–was Killed in the Frenzy of Government Downsizing

Decision-making is easy if you can ignore the facts and skip the details. Last week the U.S. Congress took a big step toward keeping the pesky facts and details out of its deliberations by closing down its small, but highly acclaimed, Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Both senators from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum, voted for elimination.
Established by the U.S. Congress in 1972 to provide in-depth technical assessments in support of congressional decision-making, OTA has been overseen by the Technology Assessment Board, a bipartisan committee of six senators and six representatives drawn equally from the two parties.
Because of the political environment in which it has operated, OTA reports rarely draw definitive conclusions. Rather, in clear and simple language, supported by attractive illustrations, they summarized the technical facts, identified problems, laid out alternatives, and discussed their pros and cons.
The reports often placed limits on the range of political debate by laying out what was scientifically feasible. Legislators on opposite sides of contentious issues have often cited the same OTA report as a basis for the lines of argument they have advanced.
OTA studies, which typically lasted for a year or two, have been performed by a small professional staff of about 140, over half of whom hold doctorate degrees in a variety of fields that include science, engineering and various areas of social science. In addition, to assure balance and completeness, each study was assisted by an advisory board of outsiders who were selected to represent a wide range of knowledge, perspectives and interests. Topics of OTA studies have ranged widely from nuclear proliferation to pollution control, industrial competitiveness, computer security and privacy, and medical technology.
OTA’s neutrality and success have been widely acclaimed. The liberal Washington Post has characterized the agency as “a dispassionate, nonpartisan player in the legislative process.” The conservative San Diego Union has noted that “the smallest agency on the Hill is the best in terms of efficiency and thoroughness. It is certainly the least political bunch–this is real sci, not political sci–in the world’s most political town.”
And in an editorial this spring, the conservative Washington Times wrote, “…the agency has emerged as the voice of authority in a city inundated with statistics and technical gobbledygook.” It went on to note that one of the OTA’s more important recent contributions was to point out, during the health-care debate, “that no one really knew how the various proposals would affect long-term costs.” Over the past decade, delegations have come from all over the world to study OTA as a model of what they would like to achieve in their own country.
So, with all this success, what killed OTA?
It was small, and it got lost in the dust of the political stampede on the Hill to downsize and streamline.
It first got cut in the House budget bill. Rep. Amo Houghton, R-N.Y., former CEO of Corning Glass, and one of the most thoughtful people on the Hill, managed to resurrect it by trimming its already modest budget ($20 million out of a $2 billion budget for the legislative branch) and moving it under the Library of Congress, so that members could claim they had killed one of their own agencies.
Because this might have meant a cut of a few percentage points in the budget available to the library, Librarian of Congress James Billington lobbied hard on the Senate side to prevent the move. The vote in the Senate Appropriations committee was 13 to 11 to kill the agency. Sen. Specter was one of the 13. Several supporting Democrats who were absent neglected to file proxies.
Things went no better on the floor of the Senate, where multiple issues got intertwined, and enforcing party loyalty became the dominant concern. After the vote, in brief remarks from the floor, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, a longtime supporter of OTA, sadly expressed his frustration and disappointment that this important little agency had gotten run over in the broader stampede to get an appropriations bill passed.
There was one last chance to save the agency at the end of the week, when the Conference Committee met to resolve differences between the House and Senate bills. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-N.C., who had promised to vote to restore the agency, left the meeting just before the vote was taken. The result was a tie, which under the rules meant OTA died.
Through a comedy of errors, oversight and political machismo, Congress had “chosen” ignorance, and ended the 23-year history of its best and smallest agency.

Copyright ©1995, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. All rights reserved.

M. Granger Morgan is professor and head of the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.