A Legislative and Political History of OTA
The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) was established in 1972 after a Congressional review of the four legislative support agencies that had traditionally provided science and technology (S&T) advice to Congress. The Technology Assessment Act of 1972 (P.L. 92–484) effectively moved S&T policy authority out of the nonpartisan scholarship of civil servants and into a framework of political appointees. The law established an Office of Technology Assessment for the purpose of providing within the legislative branch
a new and effective means for Congress to secure competent, unbiased information concerning the physical, biological, economic, social, and political effects of the increasingly extensive and larger applications of technology.
Technology Assessment Board
The Technology Assessment Board (TAB), was designated as the policy-making body of OTA. It was to consist of thirteen members — six House and six Senate of equal numbers of majority and minority Members, and a non-voting director appointed by the Board.
Technology Assessment Advisory Council
The Act also created a Technology Assessment Advisory Council, composed of twelve members — ten members of the public, the Comptroller General, and the Director of CRS. Policy advice functions were designated to the Council, including peer review and recommendations on OTA findings, upon request by the Board.
Role of the Congressional Research Service
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) was authorized “to provide such services and assistance to (OTA) as may be appropriate and feasible. To carry out these objectives, the Librarian is authorized to establish within (CRS) such additional divisions or other organizational entities as may be necessary. The assistance of (CRS) to the Office (OTA) shall include, but is not limited to, all of the services available to Congress. The Board (TAB) and the Librarian of Congress will agree to the method of reimbursement for these services.”
OTA was authorized appropriations not to exceed $5 million for FY 73 and FY 74. The OTA board first met in April 1973 and the first OTA director was appointed in October 1973.
Rationale for OTA
By the late 1960s, debates over environmental legislation and Federal support for the development of supersonic transport had heightened Congressional sensitivity to the cultural, environmental, and economic impacts of technological development in America. Congress voiced increasing frustration over the lack of independent analysis available to oversee new and possibly harmful technologies, and Members had become distrustful of Administration oversight. Congress began to search for ways to establish its own analytical resources, which led to a proposal for the establishment of an Office of Technology Assessment within the Legislative branch. Congress designed the OTA to serve two purposes:
- To facilitate the S&T policy making process via peer review of developing technologies, and
- To achieve independence from the Administration’s exclusive technology assessment purview.
The term technology assessment first appeared in a 1966 report issued by the House Science, Research, and Development Subcommittee of the Committee on Science and Astronautics. It proposed a bill to create a Technology Assessment Board, which was later introduced by the Chairman of the subcommittee, Representative Emilio Daddario (D., CT) in March of 1967. This proposal, originally introduced for the purpose of raising awareness of the issue in Congress, was studied over the next three years. From 1967–1970, the Subcommittee examined the mechanism and scope involved in technology assessment, and determined the most effective ways to institutionalize a review process that would be appropriate for legislative applications. The HSRD Subcommittee held seminars and conferences, and commissioned the studies that would lead to the formation of OTA.
Rep. Daddario, who would became the first Director of OTA, met with Librarian of Congress, L. Quincy Mumford, and Director of the Library’s Legislative Research Service (LRS), Lester Jayson to discuss the possible expansion of LRS’s functional capacity so that it could act as a peer review organization under the Legislative Reorganization Act, and to determine whether LRS could provide the necessary expertise under the proposed expansion. Rep. Daddario made it clear that he supported a separate entity:
a new mechanism through which choices can be quickly made, contracts established, and information brought to the Congress . . . an early warning mechanism looking far ahead which can allow us today to legislate on some of the scientific and technical problems which will certainly affect our society.”
He was concerned that the implication of the Library’s witnesses was” that all we need to do is sort of beef up what we are presently doing.”
In late 1969, Mumford and Jayson testified at hearings on the general subject of technology assessment held by the House Science and Astronautics, Subcommittee on Science, Research and Development. Both men questioned the justification for a separative legislative organization. They maintained that performing technological assessment for Congress was clearly consistent with LRS’s charter, and further, that LRS frequently assisted committees in the area of technology assessment in several ways. For instance, LRS provided guidance in structuring S&T hearings, identifying witnesses, evaluating testimony, and preparing reports. As evidence, Jayson provided two lists for entry into the Congressional Record:
- A list of topics covered in related LRS reports, and
- A detailed description of the nature and scope of said reports.
Shortly after the conclusion of the hearings, H.R. 17046 was introduced to create a legislative mechanism to deal with the issue of technology assessment, and the Office of Technology Assessment was created. In May of 1970, hearings were held on H.R. 17046, with Mumford and Jayson testifying again, this time specifically on the legislation under review. Their testimony centered around the relationship between LRS and the proposed OTA, and focused on the need to avoid duplication of services as well as potential conflicts of interest that might develop between the two organizations. While Mumford testified in support of the bill, he reiterated his position that LRS was still capable of handling all of the additional responsibilities that were envisioned for OTA. Specifically, he testified that “the LRS has at least a six year head start in technology assessment work as well as a long tradition of impartial, scholarly service to the Congress. The LRS would need strengthening in organization, staff, and powers to conduct the task successfully. But in the end this might be less costly and duplicative for the Congress, and should also mean less competition for the same limited supply of professional talent experienced in technology assessment matters.” After the hearings concluded, the full Committee on Science and Astronautics made several changes to H.R. 17046, introduced a new bill that incorporated those changes (H.R. 18469), and reported the bill to the House for consideration. In an effort to have the subject considered by the House, the bill was offered as an amending title to the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970. It was ruled not germane on a point of order and no further action was taken on it in the 91st Congress.
The 92nd Congress considered a bill to create an Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). The House version of the bill, H.R. 10243, established as its purpose to “aid in the identification and consideration of existing and probable impacts of technological application.” During the House debate on the bill, a number of members spoke in support of the creation of an Office of Technology Assessment. Moreover, the ranking minority member of the full Science and Astronautics Committee (Rep. Charles A. Mosher) noted that the bill was approved in the full committee without a dissenting vote and had the “unanimous backing of the minority side of the House Science Committee,” as well as support from Senate cosponsors Pastore, Stevens, Kennedy, Allott, and Jordan of North Carolina. Despite Rep. Mosher’s high regard for CRS, his statement of record is clear that neither it nor the Government Accountability Office (GAO) were equipped to handle the new OTA mandate:
To be effective, (OTA) should be separate (from GAO and CRS) … even though the Congressional Library has great competence in many respects, it does not have the type of competence, nor traditionally the thrust, the interests, and attitudes intended by this new legislation….
The bill passed the House by a vote of 256–118, and the Senate passed its substitute version without debate on September 14, 1972. After a one-day Conference Committee session, the Senate version of the bill passed the Senate on September 22 and the House on October 4, 1972. It was signed into law by President Nixon on October 13, 1972 as P.L. 92–484. In 1995, it was defunded by the 104th Congress.
From its inception, the OTA was under fire by stakeholder communities on multiple fronts. Critics deemed its mandate to be superfluous with the National Research Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, not to mention other independent peer review and advisory agencies inside and out of the government. Its funding mechanism was widely denounced as a slush fund for the Library. The political appointees on its Board undermined the credibility of its Advisory Council, even as the content and quality of their work was generally accepted as legit. In particular, Senator Kennedy’s involvement with the OTA was viewed with suspicion, and political rivals spread rumors that he was using its staff to support his personal office.
These tensions intensified over time, and OTA became a target for conservatives, like President Reagan and Rep. Gingrich, as well as a battleground in the struggle over power between the Executive and Legislative branches. Critics from the Administration, Big Science lobby, and academia voiced concerns regarding the conflict of interest inherent in the OTA’s constitution. Even Congressional members raised concerns at OTA’s vague mandate, which could clear a pathway for overreaching powers by the 13 who controlled its Board. By the 1980s, the Council’s science and technology experts, who were tasked with evaluating federally-funded programs and recommending new policy initiatives to the Board, found themselves in a role reversal with OTA’s Members, who had their own political agendas for driving S&T policies, which favored their own constituents and lobbies.
In 1995, under Rep. Gingrich’s leadership and the sweeping budget cuts included in his “Contract with America” initiative, OTA was defunded. Despite years of controversy due to its inherent political conflicts, OTA’s role in institutionalizing technology assessment had earned it enough respect from the science community that its termination inspired vocal protests and appeals for its reinstatement that continue to this day.