The Political Economy of Expertise

Kevin Kosar’s lead essay in this series makes a strong case for reviving the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Fundamentally, both this piece and his other work on the OTA are persuasive. Yet they all rely upon a certain line of argumentation: First, Congress doesn’t have the expertise to assess increasingly technical policy problems. Second, if there were such a technical knowledge base, political offices would use it in their lawmaking. And finally, the OTA is the best means of achieving more technical expertise.

Elsewhere, I have argued that the OTA should be seen as a last resort; there are other ways of embedding expertise in Congress, like boosting staff and reforming hiring practices. The following essay makes a slightly different argument, namely, that the history of the OTA shows the razor wire on which a revived version of agency will have to balance. In its early years, the OTA was dogged by accusations of partiality. Having established itself as a neutral party throughout the 1980s, the OTA was abolished because it failed to distinguish itself among competing agencies. There is an underlying political economy to expertise that makes the revival of the OTA difficult, undercutting it as an option for expanding tech expertise. In a modern political environment where scientific knowledge is politicized and budgets are tight, the OTA would likely face the hatchet once again.

To understand how the OTA would work in a modern congressional setting, it is helpful to understand why the OTA was first created. While it is the case that “Congress took a significant step to bolster its brains when it created the Office of Technology Assessment,” as Kosar notes, the OTA was also established to mirror the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) and thus counter the growing sense that Congress didn’t have the resources it needed to check the administration. Indeed, the OTA was just one in a number of reforms in Congress, kicked off by the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970.

While members wanted the OTA to help understand an increasingly complex world, congressional architects also thought it would redress an imbalance of federal power that favored the White House. Speaking in favor of the creation of the OTA in May 1970, Missouri Democrat James Symington emphasized that, “We have tended simply to accede to administration initiatives, which themselves from time to time may have been hastily or inaccurately promoted.” When the bill came to the floor in 1972, Republican Representative Charles Mosher noted, “Let us face it, Mr. Chairman, we in the Congress are constantly outmanned and outgunned by the expertise of the executive agencies.” Writing on the eve of its demise, a historian of the agency explained that, “the most important factor in establishing the OTA was a desire on the part of Congress for technical advice independent of the executive branch.” And John Gibbons, one of the longest serving directors of the OTA later confirmed the balancing impetus,

Congress saw a threat to the balance of power in the federal government. Faced with a deluge of complex technological proposals sent to it by an Executive branch resplendent in scientific resources, Congress felt increasingly ill-equipped to evaluate those proposals.

Here it is worth pausing to emphasize the difference in political environments. The demand for the OTA at its genesis was twofold, for knowledge as Kosar explains, but also for power. In contrast, it is doubtful that either the Democrats or the Republicans today would “simply to accede to administration initiatives,” as both had a tendency to do in the 1960s when faced with complex problems. Moreover, while there are some notable exceptions including Senator Mike Lee’s Article I Project, congressional demands for rebalancing power away from the Executive aren’t very strong.

Kosar is right that the defunding of the OTA and the slashing of the budgets in 1995 “made Congress weaker vis-à-vis the president and the administrative state,” but we shouldn’t assume reverse causality. The agency was created at a time when both sides of Congress wanted to check the president. It was a solution to an intertwined set of problems. While the tenor in Congress could swiftly change, a groundswell of bipartisan support for an OTA would be needed before any efforts to revive it could be effective. Indeed, Kosar’s often coauthor, Zach Graves, expressed worry “about the Democrat-heavy support base pushing OTA, which could politicize the institution and its work if revived.” The revival of the OTA needs to be a compromise that both parties and both chambers of Congress can agree to. We have simply not arrived at that time.

Nevertheless, throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, the Office of Technology Assessment was able to court favor with both Democrats and Republicans. The agency accomplished this impossible feat by refusing to endorse legislative proposals. This direction was initiated by John Gibbons when he took over the agency in 1979. Gibbons’ predecessor, Russell Petersen, tried to make the OTA a true tech assessment agency by creating a priorities list of assessment topics hoping to inform policy. Congress didn’t like the direction. Petersen lasted less than a year.

Gibbons instead made the OTA a servant of Congress by working to ensure it didn’t get embroiled in controversy. The original goal of the technology assessment agency morphed into an information gathering role as the agency matured. By 1991 a joint research project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution was able to say that the office was “considered highly credible by members of both parties and is well regarded for its technical competence” largely driven by “its efforts to avoid taking firm stands on policy issues.”

When the budget cuts of 1995 came, the OTA was an easy choice. As Bruce Bimber noted in his excellent work on the agency, the “OTA’s contribution to the policy process was not as well formalized or institutionalized as that of its sibling agencies.” The course of neutrality that was pursued throughout the 1980s meant that the OTA had few enemies. But, then again, it hadn’t built a constituency that would support it during the massive trim.

While it is partly true, as Kosar notes, that the OTA was cut in a “bizarre decision that reflected convoluted legislative logic,” that logic isn’t all that convoluted. If the OTA took a less neutral tack, it might have survived, riding the support of one party or another. But because it was dedicated to information gathering in a niche space, the OTA stood out. As historian Gregory Kunkle noted in Technology in Society in 1995,

This is the crux of OTA’s ongoing problem: In order to earn a reputation for being unbiased, it has had to dodge controversies, into which, 25 years ago it seemed the OTA would be thrown, but in not being so involved, the OTA ‘risks becoming invisible.’

The problem that Kunkle laid out almost 25 years ago remains today. But there are solutions to sidestep the reinvigoration of a standalone agency. In line with my suggestions from last year, the Government Accountability Office is expanding their tech assessment program. Congress also needs to reform their staffing processes to encourage stability and reduce turnover. None of these proposals, however, will make headway in changing congressional offices back toward their orientation in the early 1990s. In a follow up to this initial post, I will explore the challenges that any reform will face when trying to solve the problem of tech expertise.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kevin Kosar argues that Congress has a clear disadvantage in crafting tech policy. Its elected nature makes it responsive to the people, which is a good thing, but its members may still lack the expertise needed to understand the things they propose to regulate. Kosar suggests that reviving the congressional Office of Technology Assessment may help close the gap—and produce tech policy that is responsive to popular opinion, but also well-informed by rapidly developing facts.

Response Essays

  • A congressional office for tech policy would necessarily be caught in a partisan tug-of-war. While there may be good reasons to support greater congressional responsibility—which would require greater congressional knowledge—still, both the appearance and the reality of partisan bias remain serious problems. Even pursuing perfect neutrality risks making such an office invisible and irrelevant.

  • Betsy Wright Hawkings argues that congressional tech competence needs to start with the members’ own office software and social media experiences. For as long as anyone can remember, Congress has been a tradition-bound institution, slow to modernize its own offices and official procedures. Hawkings points to one key counterexample, however: The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which, she argues, did real good and should be emulated.

  • Decades ago, the Supreme Court allowed Congress to give much of its legislative authority to unelected executive agencies and their bureaucrats. Congress happily gave away its responsibilities—even as federal spending levels exploded. Now, says Berin Szóka, a newly conservative Court looks ready to undo that change, and Congress is ill-prepared to resume its rightful constitutional responsibilities.