McClatchy Washington Bureau
Posted with permission from Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON — Congress had an agency designed to help senators avoid the sort of embarrassment they faced when trying to understand Facebook — but lawmakers stopped funding it 23 years ago and have resisted reviving it

Now there's talk the Office of Technology Assessment could make a comeback. A subcommittee will hear Tuesday from interest groups advocating its return.

Since the office wasn't technically abolished but only defunded, bringing the agency back is as simple as attaching an amendment to a budget bill. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., has tried to do that for years; his latest attempt failed in July, 236-191, mostly on partisan lines.

Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, spoke against the proposal, saying there was already a technological research office within the Government Accountability Office, Congress' nonpartisan watchdog. A spokesman for Yoder this week said he had nothing new to add. Yoder chairs the subcommittee that will hear testimony about the OTA.

The technology branch of GAO has two full-time employees and issues an average of two reports per year. The OTA had 140 employees when it was shut down and issued an average of more than 35 reports per year for the 23 years it existed.

"It's a very small office, and the reports are largely driven by outside academics," said Zach Graves, lead author of libertarian think tank R Street Institute's report on the OTA, of the GAO office.

"OTA, on the other hand, was driven by in-house experts, who took the time to consult with multiple industry groups before issuing these in-depth, forward-looking reports," he said. Graves plans to testify Tuesday.

The need for the agency was magnified this week during Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's public appearances before House and Senate committees.

Several members of Congress seemed to misunderstand even basics of how Facebook works. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, asked Zuckerberg how a free service earned money. The answer was advertisements.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, asked if Facebook could see emails he sends on WhatsApp, a messaging app Facebook owns. WhatsApp does not use emails and is encrypted, meaning the information can't be accessed by outside parties.

Republicans in the past accused the OTA of partisan bias in certain reports. It was defunded when Republicans controlled Congress, but some notable GOP lawmakers supported bringing it back before the Facebook debacle, including Hatch, and Reps. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, and Lamar Smith, R-Texas.

The OTA's best known partisan fight came in 1985, after it published a report critical of President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, a controversial defense shield against potential nuclear attacks.

The report cast doubt on the system's effectiveness given the state of the technologies at the time.

Many of the program's initiatives were failing in 1986, and a report by the American Physical Society in 1987 concluded that none of the technology was near ready for deployment. The program's budget was then significantly cut.

The OTA report sparked harsh criticism from conservatives at the time, including Hatch, who had been an OTA supporter.

Even so, Hatch urged Congress not to defund the OTA in 1995, comparing it to cutting "off our nose to spite our face."

Takano asked for $2.5 million to restart the agency last year. Peak funding of the OTA in the 1990s was about $20 million.

The agency worked directly for Congress and issued reports only when directed by committees. It had a 12-person board made up of members of Congress, equal parts Republicans, Democrats, senators and representatives. Reports would assess risks, opportunities and possible congressional actions on technology in wide-ranging areas such as health care, air travel, military affairs and data privacy.

Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., offered one specific example on how the OTA was ahead of its time. The agency laid out options on congressional action for an online health care database in 1993. It presented as an option setting national standards on digital records for health care providers, including security requirements.

Nearly 16 years later, Congress passed such requirements for health care providers.

"They predicted we could save lots and lots of money over time, and you know, they were right," Takano said this week.

Some lawmakers still say the agency isn't needed. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she's long been keeping track of the issues posed by social media companies and was comfortable with how she stayed on top of those issues through staff.

"If Congress needs to step in to ensure technology companies address election interference, block hate speech or remove terrorism-related content, I believe the judiciary, commerce and intelligence committees possess the expertise to craft those laws," Feinstein said.

About 40 percent of congressional staff is younger than 24, staff turnover is high and in general staffs have been shrinking, according to the R Street Institute research paper.

"Some staff know more than others, and when they don't, who do you think informs them without an agency like OTA around?" said John Alic, who worked at the OTA, pointing to interest groups and lobbying efforts.

"Companies are very strategic in what they say, and there are different views within the same industry or even the same organization," he added.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said many colleagues think an agency like the OTA is necessary.

"The range of increasingly technical issues facing Congress certainly require more resources to ensure members can obtain the best possible counsel, either from an entity like OTA, or by hiring experts on staff," Wyden said. There is no substitute for nonpartisan researchers who are directly accountable to Congress, he said.

Still others were unwilling to comment on bringing back the OTA, but said Congress needed to be more proactive about tech policies.

"It would be nice if we hadn't gotten to this point; that's all I'll say for now," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.