Convincing Congress to Remove its Tech Policy Blinders

The Ash Center sat down with Zach Graves, a 2019 Technology and Democracy Fellow, head of policy at the Lincoln Network, and author of “Science, Technology, and Democracy: Building a Modern Congressional Technology Assessment Office,” a new paper offering recommendations and a road map for resurrecting a technology assessment capability in Congress

Harvard: Congress is often criticized for being out of step at best or ignorant at worse on the many technology trends and issues reshaping our society. How did it develop this reputation and is it rooted in reality?

Graves: While Congress has earned a reputation for lack of tech literacy. it’s important to separate casual gaffes about technical issues—which you might expect from non-specialists in their 60s and 70s—from lack of institutional capacity for effective oversight and legislation. Both of these are problems, but the solutions aren’t the same. And the latter is much more important.

Some gaffes, like the now-famous line “we run ads, Senator” uttered by Mark Zuckerberg, sort of make sense in the full context of the hearing. Others are less defensible, like when a Representative told a panel of experts on quantum computing, “I can understand about 50% of the things you say.” But Members of Congress shouldn’t be expected to be subject-matter experts on quantum, digital advertising, or the myriad other highly complex issues before them. Instead, they need to rely on expert staff in their personal offices, committees, and support agencies like the Congressional Research Service, Government Accountability Office, and formerly Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Building this capacity will help make sure ignorance in hearings doesn’t make it into law. 

Harvard: If Congress truly lacks this sort of science and technology capacity, why have attempts to resurrect the OTA, a now-shuttered congressional agency that was credited with providing Congress high quality science and technology analysis, failed?

Graves: OTA is part of a larger story. Responding to political incentives, Congress has dramatically cut back its staff capacity in recent decades. Since 1989, congressional support agencies have lost about 40% of their staff. Committees have lost about 38%. At the same time, with the rise of digital media and a growing population, staffing priorities have shifted from policy expertise to constituent services and communications. The solution must be to build a broader movement to invest in the institution, rather than to further lobotomize it. This is easier said than done, as public attitudes about Congress’ still rank below getting a root canal.

Harvard: What can be done about the science and technology capacity crisis on Capitol Hill?

Graves: We spend much of the paper mapping out how to rebuild an office like OTA. But this is a necessary and not sufficient condition to address Congress’s science and technology gap. In addition, Congress will need to increase the number and quality of expert staff at committees, at CRS, and in personal offices. Broader institutional reforms will also be necessary to improve how this expertise is absorbed and utilized.