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Congress Needs to Reestablish the Office of Technology Assessment

October 15, 2020

By Michael Stumo

In 2019, a House resolution established a bipartisan “Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress” that sought to make Congress more efficient and transparent. Recently, the Committee offered a lengthy list of recommendations to improve everything from staff pay and mailing procedures to cybersecurity and communications systems. However, amidst various mundane proposals was an intriguing suggestion—reestablishing the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA).

It may sound a bit technical, but Congress needs an OTA. Until 1995, Members of Congress enjoyed regular access to a skilled OTA staff that provided immediate analysis on a host of scientific and technical issues. However, the OTA was defunded in 1995 when it was deemed a budgetary extravagance.

Why reestablish the OTA? It’s not because Members of Congress lack knowledge of national security issues—they’re usually quick to attend briefings on national security concerns. But they lack industry-specific knowledge needed to form effective policy proposals. This has become particularly relevant with U.S.-China relations in recent years, since tensions have been rising on various strategic issues. 

There are a number of challenging issues that the United States must confront with Beijing, and a good example is the advent of 5G wireless. It’s expected that 5G will soon become the dominant wireless network—and play a vital role in global technology since it incorporates key systems like high-speed semiconductors and radio communications. Essentially, 5G has both military and civilian applications—everything from autonomous vehicles and video gaming to fighter jets and a future Space Force. 

It’s imperative that the U.S. moves forward in 5G technology—and doesn’t allow China to seize global leadership. But with Chinese tech firm Huawei now the world’s leader in 5G, serious security concerns have emerged. Huawei has been repeatedly accused of intellectual property theft, industrial espionage, and implanting spyware in its products. While Congress has advanced numerous bills to support R&D for 5G and to address Huawei’s expanding market presence, more must be done to ensure that our elected officials are working with the best and brightest. 

An office of OTA would provide such a brain trust for the direct benefit of Congress. And in such a highly competitive environment, Congress needs to be well-informed on each new development in these technologies. 

Realistically, there’s plenty that Congress must do to confront a rising China. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans saw firsthand the pitfalls of an over-reliance on Chinese imports, particularly when it comes to needed medications. And Congress now recognizes there's a problem. But 90 percent of the chemical ingredients for generic medications that treat coronavirus infections are sourced from China. However, many in Congress lack the background to specifically address import-dependence when it comes to pharmaceuticals. 

Renewable energy initiatives are another area in which Members of Congress are heavily focused. But again, it’s an area where Beijing is in the lead. China dominates the global supply of rare earth metals needed to produce everything from wind turbines and solar panels to electric vehicles and robotics. Complicating things is that China has also repeatedly stolen advanced technologies from U.S. companies. It’s estimated, for example, that 20 percent of the wind turbines deployed in China today contain stolen software. These are complex issues that require informed strategic thinking backed by the latest research. An OTA can provide that kind of data immediately, and in house.

The decision in 1995 to eliminate the OTA was shortsighted. Few Members of Congress possess wide-ranging expertise across diverse, complex areas of policy. They may recognize that China is a growing national security threat, but they lack the industrial know-how to draft policies that can help America rebuild its lead in global innovation. Time is ticking and Congress needs an Office of Technology Assessment to guide its future work. 

Michael Stumo is CEO of the Coalition for a Prosperous America (CPA). Follow him @michael_stumo
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  • Barbara Grant
    This makes a lot of sense. I’d also note that in the early 1990s, following the end of the Cold War, OTA was the only government component I could find that argued for utilizing the skills of the thousands of defense industry engineers and scientists whose jobs would be slashed due to downsizing. No one had a plan; but they perceived the need.
  • Michael Stumo