Free the Wonks!

For those who believe in transparent government and fact-driven legislation, the power shift in the U.S. Congress represents a unique opportunity to open up one important Congressional institution to the Internet and bring back another one twelve years after it was disbanded.
The Congressional Research Service publishes first-rate, succinctly-written analyses of policy issues, including hundreds of reports on homeland security issues over the last few years. But you wouldn’t know that from looking at the CRS website, which contains none of the entity’s content. This has been the situation with CRS reports dating back to the early days of the World Wide Web, largely at the behest of former House Administration Committee Chairman (and recently convicted felon) Bob Ney.
Congressional staffers are often willing to send out CRS reports to constituents, and as a result the reports eventually get out into the public domain, but sometimes after delays of weeks or months. I’ve made an effort to dig out every homeland security-related report I can over the past 7-8 months, as you can see here, and there are many other groups such as the Federation of American Scientists who have created excellent CRS report sites. But our yeoman’s work is a poor substitute for direct, real-time access to new CRS reports at the site. The new Democratic leadership in the House and the Congress should set the CRS free on day one of the 110th Congress.
A second important Congressional institution, the Office of Technology Assessment, has faded into a distant memory over the past decade, but it once played a critical role in advising Congress to make sense of technology issues. It was disbanded following the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, a sacrificial pawn with a $20 million/year budget to the budget-cutting rhetoric of that election. But with the federal government today spending $135 billion/year on R&D today, the disbandment of OTA looks penny wise but pound foolish. It’s not possible to prove a counterfactual, but I’m confident that there would be a better-informed Congressional allocation of R&D funding and much less waste if the OTA still existed today.
In particular, the homeland security domain has deeply needed the OTA over the past five years. DHS has frequently struggled to articulate an R&D agenda for key mission requirements, and Congress has too often provided only surface-level oversight of the Department’s technology challenges.
Take the example of R&D on explosive detection systems for aviation security. After 9/11, Congress moved quickly to invest billions of dollars in new machines, and start R&D efforts for a next generation of technology. Those decisions were made, as best I can tell, without any long-run plan for how TSA would migrate from this first-generation of technology to the next-generation. This is exactly the kind of guidance that the OTA could have helped to provide upfront. In the absence of such strategic advice, the migration path to a new generation of technology continues to be informed too much by reactions to the news of the day (e.g. the UK plot and liquid explosives detection) and competing industry pressures, and not enough by a long-term strategy.
For this reason, and countless others, it would be an excellent investment to bring back the Office of Technology Assessment. It will undoubtedly take some time to bring it back to its prior level of competence, but it’s a project worth undertaking.
p.s. For those interested in the work of the OTA as it applies to homeland security, check out its excellent report from 1992 entitled “Technology against Terrorism: Structuring Security” which serves as a prescient guide to many of the challenges still facing DHS today.
Christian Beckner (cross-posted from Homeland Security Watch)

  • sglover

    Bravo for mentioning the late OTA. Somebody ought to ask Gingrich about the cost-benefit ratio of killing that agency whenever he tries to pass himself off as scientifically literate. Then again, for a certain kind of Washington “leader”, a technologically savvy populace is the very last thing one wants. Newt’s move was probably shrewd in that sense…..

  • john s

    also check out:

  • anon

    A new Congress will not be enough to get CRS reports on the open web. You’d also need a new director of CRS. He insists he does not have the legal authority to release CRS info, as it is proprietary to Congress and covered by the speech and debate clause. But, as long as the info is on close hold, people think we are hiding something and they play “gotcha” with us. Its a mess. This stuff should be in the public domain. If only because we update our reports frequently, and most of the stuff on the Web (even at FAS) does not keep up.

  • Nick Schwellenbach

    Chris Mooney did an excellent article on OTA for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists last year:

  • Allen Thomson

    “…I’m confident that there would be a better-informed Congressional allocation of R&D funding and much less waste if the OTA still existed today.”
    Call me cynical, but I think that’s a major reason OTA was abolished. Fact-based policy and budget making is, to put it mildy, not universally seen as a desirable thing.

  • Theresa Hitchens

    Kudos for posting this. The appalling lack of scientific and technical knowledge on Capitol Hill is one of the primary reasons for DoD acquisition fiascos such as SBIRS. Congress has no capability to objectively review (and understand) claims made by contractors and the Pentagon about what is achievable at what cost. Abolishing OTA was a partisan move prompted primarily by the agency’s criticism of the Reagan Star Wars program. It is time that Congress recognizes that scientific/technical ignorance is not bliss — it is damaging the nation.