When Congress wiped an agency off the map


(Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG)

It’s happened rarely. More often then not, former agencies are split up and repackaged, as when Congress voted to split the Department of Health, Education and Welfare into the separate departments of Health and Human Services and Education.

But two commentators weary of the resurgence of Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign write today about the time that the former House speaker defunded a tiny nonpartisan congressional research agency and caution lawmakers that they should avoid making similar moves in the coming months.

The Office of Technology Assessment, established in 1972 to provide nonpartisan scientific studies of policy decisions, ceased to exist in 1995 when the Republican-controlled Congress voted to defund it. Seeking budget cuts across federal agencies, supportive lawmakers argued that they also needed to trim Capitol Hill spending.

Defunding the office “made Congress dumb -- on purpose” writes Lorelei Kelly, director of the New Strategic Security Initiative, who believes the move, pushed by Gingrich, is contributing to the recent logjam on Capitol Hill.

Fifteen years after Congress voted to defund the OTA “the effects of a severely depleted institutional memory are showing up,” Kelly writes today for the Huffington Post. “Last August’s debt ceiling debacle is one example.”

“The legislative knowledge gap is especially debilitating for issues that require context, forecasting and expert judgment,” Kelly adds later. “This is a significant problem in the modern world, where Congressional actions have global implications, but members fail to connect the dots.”

Writing today for the New York Times, Bruce Bartlett, a longtime aide to Republican presidents and lawmakers, also bemoans the loss of OTA, noting that the amount of money saved “was trivial even in terms of Congress’s budget.”

“Mr. Gingrich’s real purpose was to centralize power in the speaker’s office, which was staffed with young right-wing zealots who followed his orders without question,” Bartlett writes. “Lacking the staff resources to challenge Mr. Gingrich, the committees could offer no resistance and his agenda was simply rubber-stamped.”

Bartlett warns that history is repeating itself as lawmakers are pushing to cut the budget of the Government Accountability Office to demonstrate fiscal responsibility while Gingrich is reviving his calls to eliminate of the Congressional Budget Office, which he recently called “a reactionary socialist institution which does not believe in economic growth.”

“It is essential that Congress not cripple what is left of its in-house expertise,” Bartlett writes. “Gutting the GAO and abolishing the CBO would be acts of nihilism. Any politician recommending such things is unfit for office.”

What do you think? The comments section awaits your thoughts.

(h/t Tom Shoop)

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Further reading:

States face bleak economic forecast, report says

Herman Cain re-assessing presidential candidacy

For more, visit PostPolitics and The Fed Page.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.
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