A quartet of tech experts arrived at a little-noticed hearing at the U.S. Capitol in May with a message: Quantum computing is a technology with the potential to speed up everything from drug research to financial transactions.
To Rep. Adam Kinzinger, though, their highly technical testimony might as well have been delivered in a foreign language. “I can understand about 50 percent of the things you say,” the Illinois Republican confessed.
Kinzinger’s quip drew chuckles from his peers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but it also illustrated an unavoidable challenge on Capitol Hill. Increasingly, members of Congress are confronting a wide array of complex policy debates posed by inventions like artificial intelligence and problems like the rise of Russian propaganda online. And policymakers themselves admit they aren’t fully prepared to deal with the issues.
To address that digital knowledge gap, some in Washington are now angling to revive the Capitol’s old science-and-tech think tank, the Office of Technology Assessment, which lawmakers disbanded amid partisan squabbles in the 1990s. Its foremost advocates, emboldened by recent tech mishaps, say it could aid the U.S. government at a moment when objective advice seems to be in short supply.
“Look at what our future entails,” said Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, one of the office’s proponents, in an interview. “We’re going to need to figure out autonomous cars, 5G wireless, gene editing, the internet of things.”
Lawmakers earned widespread ridicule in April, when they grilled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over charges that he had failed to protect 2 billion users’ personal information. At times, lawmakers seemed mystified by the inner workings of a multibillion-dollar American corporation that they’re supposed to regulate. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah essentially asked Facebook if it’s funded through advertising. (It is.)
“After the hearing, I think [lawmakers] are even more cognizant that Congress really should have its own advisers,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., one of the lawmakers pushing to revive the Hill’s tech policy shop.
To be sure, Congress has its share of tech-literate members. They can hire their own staff or seek advice from other organizations. But limited resources often threaten to slow down work at the GAO while forcing members of Congress to make troubling compromises.
“When a new member of Congress is coming in to set up an office, they’ll say, ‘OK, I need a scheduler, I need a chief of staff,’ ” said former Rep. Rush Holt, who now leads the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Nobody says, ‘Oh, I need a science adviser,’ It just doesn’t enter their minds.”
That’s why Takano and Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., are now seeking to revive the Office of Technology Assessment. For decades, the OTA, as it was known, performed research on subjects like missile defense and climate change, often trying to anticipate controversies before they became fodder for congressional hearings. But some Republican leaders saw the Hill’s research hub as a dollar-sucking endeavor with a liberal tint. They ultimately eliminated its funding in 1995, but left the law authorizing it intact.
This spring, Takano and Foster rallied about 40 of their colleagues in the House — all Democrats — to sign on to a letter describing the OTA as a “wise investment” that would “better prepare Congress to account for emerging technologies.” An upcoming budget bill calls for a study to determine if the OTA might be useful, a step they believe could build future momentum for its resurrection.