updated 11:30 am EDT, Tue May 6, 2014
Bi-partisan group gave advice on technology, science developments
At the end of last week, the US House voted on a bill to restore the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), an office of the United States Congress to provide Congressional members and committees with objective and authoritative analysis of the complex scientific and technical issues. It was struck down by a majority of 248 to 164, with 78 percent of Democrats voting to reinstate the department. Republicans led the charge to defeat the proposal, with 94 percent voting to not restore the group.
The vote would amend HR 4487, a bill to fund the House Historic Buildings Revitalization Trust Fund. The group's funding was revenue-neutral, taking funding from the trust fund to pay what fees the OTA would incur. Among the topics that the new group would help Congress evaluate would be the ongoing technology patent wars and the potential adverse affects to industry, the Comcast and Time Warner Cable merger, as well as other burgeoning technologies needing discussion by congress such as BitCoin, wireless communication, and other Internet issues.
The OTA was governed by a 12-member board, comprising six members of Congress from each party, half from the Senate and half from the House of Representatives. During its twenty-four-year life, it produced about 750 studies on a wide range of topics, including acid rain, health care, global climate change, and polygraphs. The OTA was struck down in 1995 in an effort driven by Newt Gingrich.
Upon its initial dissolution in 1995, Republican representative Amo Houghton railed at the vote, saying that "we are cutting off one of the most important arms of Congress when we cut off unbiased knowledge about science and technology." Candidate Hilary Clinton proposed re-establishment of the group, should she have been elected president in 2008, though funding of the office is always controlled by Congress rather than the president.
Astronomer Carl Sagan spoke vehemently about the defunding of the group just before his death, saying "there's not more than a handful of those in Congress with any kind of background in science at all" and noted that the congressional response to the group's absence was "we don't want to know, don't tell us about science and technology." Without the group's advice, Sagan believed that decisions about advanced technology would grow worse and worse over time.