Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Congress is clueless on technology — and just voted to keep it that way

The late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), who famously declared the internet a "series of tubes," might have benefitted from better technology advisors. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

A lot of members of Congress were caught off guard in 2012 when the internet exploded in opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act. Lobbyists for the motion picture and recording industries had assured them that the proposal, which involved creating a government-sponsored blacklist and forcing ISPs to block sites on it, wouldn't be too disruptive to the internet ecosystem. But the people who actually run the internet were barely consulted.

At a December 2011 hearing, members of Congress admitted that they were not "nerds" and didn't have the technical expertise to evaluate its provisions. But that didn't stop them from pushing the legislation forward, until it was finally killed by a massive online protest the following months.

It would be nice if Congress had some technical experts on staff to analyze proposed legislation and advise members about its technical implications. And in fact, Congress did have an agency like that, called the Office of Technology Assessment, until Newt Gingrich zeroed out its funding in 1995.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), one of the few members of Congress with scientific training, wants to change that. Yesterday he introduced an amendment that would have allocated funds to re-start the agency. But it was defeated in a 164-248 vote.

It's a puzzling move given how often people comment on Congress's shortage of technical expertise — and it speaks to the way Congress view technical expertise as a luxury rather than a necessity. When they zeroed out the OTA's funding in 1995, Holt says, the new Republican majority "actually said Congress shouldn't have any special perks. As if having a congressional agency that provides advice is a perk."

The problem, Holt continues, isn't that Congress doesn't have access to technical advice. To the contrary, there's an endless parade of people wanting to advise Congress on technical issues. But much of the advice comes from lobbyists and other paid advocates who might not have the public's best interests at heart. A staff of in-house technical experts could help members of Congress distinguish good advice from advice that is merely self-serving.

Holt's amendment would have allocated $2.5 million to re-start OTA. That's not enough money to get the agency back to the approximately 100 staffers it had two decades ago. But Holt is confident that once his colleagues see the benefits of an in-house technical staff, they will support further increases.

And Holt emphasizes that $2.5 million is a tiny amount of money compared to the amounts good technical advice can save taxpayers. For example, Holt notes that one OTA report recommending an overhaul of the Social Security Administration's computer system led to hundreds of millions of dollars in savings. He said OTA was also instrumental in convincing Congress to cut back the wasteful synfuels program in the 1980s, a move that saved taxpayers billions of dollars.

"There's this old saying that if you think this is expensive, you ought to try ignorance," Holt says. Yesterday Congress voted to prolong its own ignorance for another year.

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