Bring back the OTA

As long as we’re looking for good and relatively easy ideas for the 110th Congress, here’s one of the easiest (and possibly one of the best); re-creation of the Office of Technology Assessment.

Although the official history, this description from the OTA’s website serves as an excellent description of its mission and accomplishments:

The Office of Technology Assessment occupied a unique role among the Congressional information agencies. Unlike the General Accounting Office, which is primarily concerned with evaluation of ongoing programs, and the Congressional Research Service, which provides rapid information on legislative topics, OTA provided a deeper, more comprehensive, and more technical level of analysis. Through eleven Congressional sessions, OTA became a key resource for Congressional members and staff confronting technological issues in crafting public policy. Its existence brought a healthy balance to the analytical resources available to the executive and legislative branches of government.

Why would Congress kill such a useful agency, especially one that took so few resources? It was the classic Republican pattern:

1) They found that they couldn’t really reduce the budget with anything big, so as a symbol, they killed something small without a powerful political constituency. Hurting the powerless, of course, stands as one of the core principles of the modern GOP governance philosophy.

2) The OTA stood for the objective use of science in policy, which of course was verboten, particularly to religious conservatives.

3) The OTA had this annoying tendency to reach conclusion that did not sit well with Republican contributors, particularly large energy interests.

One might also add that under the rubber-stamp Congress mentality post-Clinton, there was little reason to have any independent Congressional capacity to analyze policy: why in the world would anyone want to question the Dear Leader?

Bringing back the OTA would not be expensive; it would, however, be both good policy and good politics. It would demonstrate the Democrats’ commitment to an effective legislative branch that rejects faith-based policymaking. Rush Holt, the New Jersey congressman who is also an accomplished physicist (and who, if we are lucky, will be the next House Intelligence Committee chair), has a bill to do just that. It should be part of a comprehensive Democratic science agenda.

Chris Mooney’s invaluable blog mentioned this a few weeks ago, but it was somewhat buried. It shouldn’t be.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

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