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.