Why Congress needs to address technology in the next relief bill

Why Congress needs to address technology in the next relief bill

The steps toward the next stimulus package have begun in earnest, with signals from the White House and Congress that infrastructure deserves a high priority in this new round of spending. This bipartisan support will need other voices to enact legislation to expand and improve our energy grid, water systems, and broadband networks. Few will be able to argue that our leaders are operating optimally to meet future demands, given the critical role of infrastructure in bringing our economy back to life. Such an effort requires an enormous price tag of up to $1 trillion or more.

One item that must be tucked into any relief legislation is the reestablishment of the Office of Technology Assessment. It was extinguished 25 years ago, based on the premise that Congress need not have a consistent and high level of expertise when evaluating the technological implications of legislation in its pipeline. At its peak funding, the Office of Technology Assessment received $22 million annually. Its defunding was done with a bad sense that even this miniscule amount was too much to spend to ensure that Congress stayed up to speed on technological developments. The coming era, characterized by a technological tsunami in the United States and around the world, has demonstrated the unmindful nature of this decision.

Congress surely would have been more knowledgeable about the technology involved in telework, telehealth, and supply chain operations, which are all of vital importance in our toolkit to confront the coronavirus, if it had an Office of Technology Assessment today. But hand wringing about the decision to shut it down only looks backward in speculating about previous laws and more efficient spending of taxpayer dollars. Congress should rectify its “penny wise and pound foolish” approach by ensuring that the Office of Technology Assessment is reestablished as soon as possible.

Any funding allocation still would be tiny, not even at the level of a budget rounding error, yet the payoff would be immediate and substantial. After all, how will Congress effectively allocate massive amounts for infrastructure that require detailed information of the technology that comprises its elements? How will Congress provide meaningful oversight for these funds once they are authorized? Beyond infrastructure, of course, is a range of technology with important implications for national security and global trade. Artificial intelligence and blockchain are two notable examples.

The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress last year favorably reviewed whether a revived Office of Technology Assessment would help provide better expertise to lawmakers. But only $6 million was included in a spending bill to do this, and even this amount was not forthcoming. As the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University correctly noted, “Congress does not, in fact, lack a supply of folks trying to give it advice. To the contrary, it is overwhelmed. What it lacks is the ability to sort through it all.” From this perspective, the Office of Technology Assessment should have a reconstituted mission to recognize the value of new external information about technology, assimilate it, and help Congress apply it to legislative outcomes.

In other words, the Office of Technology Assessment can deliver the best bang for the buck if it is able to assist lawmakers with the avalanche of useful information generated by universities, think tanks, nonprofit groups, and the private sector. Some might argue that other government agencies, such as the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office, can assume this role if provided with some additional funding and staff, therefore minimizing the possibility of duplicative resources.

But these impressive organizations have such a broad range of topics to cover and are designed to generate new research rather than synthesize the best available technology knowledge for Congress. A lean and mean Office of Technology Assessment, funded for an initial period of five years with a sunset provision to make it politically palatable, would be a more attractive option. Regardless of the price tag, it holds the promise of being the greatest bargain for our nation that any relief legislation could include.

Stuart Brotman is a former government official and fellow in digital privacy policy issues with the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars based in Washington.

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