The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Legislators struggle with tech. That’s why we need the Office of Technology Assessment.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appears for a hearing at the Hart Senate Office Building on April 10 in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

CONGRESS NEEDS to hire more teachers — for itself. As high-profile hearings have made clear this year, lawmakers struggle to understand the Internet platforms that dominate online life, and given the limited resources the legislative branch has to build up its knowledge base, that is no surprise. Thankfully, recent appropriations bills offer reason for hope.

Over the past two decades, two Democratic physicists-turned-congressmen have led the charge for the resurrection of the Office of Technology Assessment, which from 1972 to its 1995 defunding provided representatives with nonpartisan analysis of science and technical issues. Though Republicans have been largely resistant to the measure, the current legislation requires the Congressional Research Service to examine the need for an additional entity to dispense technological guidance. The Government Accountability Office has also been instructed to evaluate how to give its tech assessment program more prominence.

It is crucial for legislators to grapple with technological issues on a higher level than most have so far proved themselves capable. OTA was established in recognition of technology’s “increasingly extensive, pervasive, and critical” impact on all of us. That has not changed. Technology permeates society far beyond the buzziest issues surrounding Silicon Valley’s most powerful companies, reaching areas from cybersecurity to biomedical research to space exploration. When Congress steps in, it needs to understand what it is doing — whether it’s reworking regulatory frameworks to accommodate innovations or figuring out the most efficient way to administer programs such as Social Security in the digital age.

Some believe that altering the GAO’s tech assessment program could bring Congress all the benefits OTA used to offer, and that doing so would be politically easier than recreating a separate office. GAO says it is starting to make changes. Yet GAO’s institutional culture centers on audits and investigations, and it lacks the hallmarks of OTA in its heyday. Those include a larger permanent staff of subject experts with whom legislators can build relationships, as well as the independence to better compete for resources.

In fact, OTA furnished Congress with exactly what it needs right now: careful analysis of the toughest tech issues of the day and the policy options to address them. It was not perfect — OTA was often criticized for moving too slowly, and in the digital age, speed matters more than ever — but its absence is painfully felt. Democrats may struggle to secure Republican buy-in to restore the office, not to mention the funding necessary for the venture to truly succeed. They should try anyway. Knowing what one is talking about should not be a partisan issue.

Read more:

Catherine Rampell: Our politicians have no idea how the Internet works

Mark Zuckerberg: Protecting democracy is an arms race. Here’s how Facebook can help.

Molly Roberts: Google’s day of reckoning is finally at hand

Marc A. Thiessen: Does Google think it’s better than the U.S. military?