How Congress Lobotomized Itself: 25 Years After the Death of OTA

On September 28, 1995, Amo Houghton stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and delivered what is probably the most heartbreakingly beautiful eulogy ever written about a technical government agency. Amo Houghton was a Republic Representative from New York, a former marine who served in World War II, and a devout Christian. He spent eighteen years on Capitol Hill building civility and bipartisanship. Serving as Co-Chairman of the Faith and Politics Institute, his co-chair and good friend John Lewis described him as, “a believer that we come into this world to make a contribution, to do some good.” 

“Mr. Speaker,” Houghton began his eulogy, “The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which served this Congress with such great distinction for more than twenty years, will close its doors.” Houghton described OTA as “a generous place,” a place where “colleagues became like second families,” and “Friendship, joy and grief” could be shared without regard to status and hierarchy. And also “one of the most important arms of Congress,” that provided a wildly impressive amount of “critical unbiased knowledge about science and technology.” 

Houghton wasn’t being hyperbolic. OTA was the global gold standard in institutes of its kind. A veritable juggernaut among apolitical institutes that amass, distill, and analyze cutting edge research to inform vital federal policy. Foreign Affairs touted, “The Office of Technology Assessment produces the best writing on security-related technical issues in the entire United States.” A former U.S. Trade Representative called OTA’s 1992 report on trade and the environment, “the Bible.”

Prolific, rigorous, innovative, deeply bipartisan, efficient, and kind; OTA was not like other governmental agencies. So, why get rid of it? 

OTA was first established by Congress in 1972. Rumblings for such an agency to be formed began several years earlier, with some Congressmen urging, “technical information needed by policy makers is frequently not available or not in the right form. A policy maker cannot judge the merits or consequences of a technological program within a strictly technical context. He has to consider social, economic and legal implications of any course of action.” This was true in the 1960’s and it’s so painfully way too true now. 

Governing throughout the Cold War and the Space Race, Senators and Representatives like Houghton realized they needed to really understand technology. Without this type of assistance, they had no hope of protecting the United States from nuclear war or beating the USSR at flinging primates into orbit. And the deficiency was striking. Throughout the 60’s, the House approved funding for all sorts of wild projects: strapping bombs onto bats, manufacturing artificial aurora borealis using lasers, designing a pill that would let you see in the dark, anti-ballistic man-made lightning, NASA. 

Appropriately, the OTA was introduced as a bill to Congress jointly by a Democrat from Connecticut and a Republican from Ohio, Daddario and Mosher. Mosher advocated, “Too often, we in the Congress are flying blind… we desperately need a stronger source of professional advice and information.” As such, OTA was designed to be a sole servant of the Congress, with the fundamental function of supplying, “more comprehensive, accurate, significant, technical advice. It will be created solely to help us do a better job.” 

On October 13, 1972, President Nixon signed the bill into law. Over the next 24 years, the OTA would produce over 750 assessments, background papers, technical memoranda, case studies, and workshop proceedings. Many OTA reports were among the most cited references on their subjects, landmark papers in every field of economy, environment, security, health, energy, and education. The OTA also tapped thousands of leaders from academia, non-governmental groups, and industry. It did this all on less than $20 million a year. This is still a lot of money. But if you consider that last year Congress approved over $934 billion in annual military spending alone, perhaps investing .000021% of that on actually understanding the defense technology and weaponry being funding would be prudent. 

For two and a half decades, OTA’s neutrality and success were widely lauded. Legislators on opposite sides of contentious issues often cited the same OTA report as a basis for their arguments. The conservative San Diego Union wrote, “the smallest agency on the Hill is the best in terms of efficiency and thoroughness. It is certainly the least political bunch–this is real sci, not political sci–in the world’s most political town.” In clear and simple language, OTA summarized the technical facts, identified problems, laid out alternatives, and analyzed costs and benefits. The reports informed and framed debate in terms of what was actually feasible and likely.

OTA avoided controversy and remained bipartisan. This became its undoing. 

In the 1992 elections, anti-incumbent sentiments created high turnover in Congress. Although Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress, the Republicans’ unusually large freshman class emerged as a powerful and aggressive conservative bloc. Two years later, the 1994 mid-term election brought the “Republican Revolution” and, with it, GOP control of Congress for the first time in four decades. Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” was the crowing jewel in the reform agenda that helped Republicans take the House of Representatives. Gingrich’s contract promised welfare reform, tax cuts, and massive cuts to congressional spending. 

Although OTA was by far the smallest congressional agency, getting rid of it would boost the Republicans’ budget-cutting credibility. Because it was a small agency, and a neutral one at that, it got swept up in the slashfest. Republicans claimed it was slow to produce reports. Newt Gingrich claimed the agency was an “unnecessary middleman” between legislators and experts. As a Gingrich spokesman told a UPI reporter in 2004, “Why would you put a filter between you and a scientist?”

I’ll tell you why, Newt Gingrich. Because if you’re not an environmental engineer, medical professional, nuclear physicist, or pharmaceutical chemist, you probably aren’t qualified to evaluate claims in those fields. And if you can’t evaluate differing claims through an analytically sound process, you might just be tempted to choose the claim that best fits your agenda. If Congresspeople get their information directly from “scientists,” they get to determine what constitutes a scientist. They get to pick their own experts. They get to pick their own facts. 

This changed the nature of Congress’s relationship to science and technology in several ways. First, getting rid of the OTA altered the fundamental structure of the economics of political expertise. Whenever you hear politicians bemoaning the “revolving door” of Congress, this is what they’re talking about. Without a designated agency to provide valuable technical assistance to Congresspeople, the door was open. Now, Congresspeople choose to solicit advise from lobbyists and consultants. After leaving Congress, Newt Gingrich, for example, started his own consulting firm which claims to bring in over $100 million every year. But it’s not just Newt. Of the 44 Congressmen and women who exited in 2018, over 2/3 moved directly into high paying jobs in lobbying and consulting. 

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Obviously, this creates perverse incentives. Senators know if they spend their time in Congress cozying up to lobbying groups, there will be a huge reward once they retire. Lobbying is a multi-billion-dollar industry, with the top 50 companies alone spending nearly $800 million annually on lobbying. If we’re calling it what it is, it’s a delayed bribe. And if you sell your soul, the payoff is enormous.

This isn’t only dangerous because it means public office will attract increasingly self-interested and greedy candidates, it also subjects every scientific truth to politicization. The role of OTA in Congress was more than a providing a practical service, it also had a normative function. At the foundation of any policy debate, lawmakers will need to first agree on a basic set of assumptions from which to expand. For example, everyone must first basically agree that mercury is poisonous if we want to draft a law that makes it illegal to put mercury in children’s toys.  With those foundations laid, Congressmembers could spend their time parsing specifics and ethical considerations, rather than wasting time and bickering over dubiously sourced data.   

As many others have already pointed out, this is the type of culture that erodes public trust in science. Without agencies like the OTA to vet scientific claims, Congresspeople can cite literally anyone they want as a credible source. They can cite rigorously peer reviewed literature or a vaguely labeled “expert” provided by the corn lobby. If there are no standards, everything qualifies as equally valid. The elimination of OTA opened a new channel through which money could buy scientific legitimacy and prestige, independent from logic or empiricism.   

Basic scientific values and realities had previously established guardrails for managing society, providing reasonable boundaries with respect to harm, risk, and benefits associated with a given decision. If the broadly accepted scientific positions, however, do not fit your political agenda, derailing policy debate into petty bickering can be an advantage.

If the ambition is to maximize short-term personal gain with no regard to long term societal cost, you’re better off not knowing that cost. There’s an upside to sticking your head in the sand. But on the spectrum of “ignorance is bliss” to “criminal negligence,” I’d argue our political system, as a whole, is unfortunately closer to the latter. 

There’s a term in computer programming called Conway’s Law, which states: “Every system is perfectly designed to produce the results it produces.” What the United States Congressional system produces is Senators like Ted Stevens, who gave a speech about the plight of Internet service providers in which he said, “I got an Internet sent by my staff at 10 on Friday and I just got it yesterday. Why? Because it got tangled up with all those things going on the Internet… the Internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a truck. It’s a series of tubes.” Which is objectively hilarious if you can forget it’s coming out of the mouth attached to someone who is ostensibly responsible for protecting Americans from cyberattacks on critical infrastructure.

Congress has designed a perfect system to produce ignorant lawmakers. It has designed a system in which Americans materially suffer because some politicians can make money by dividing us and stealing what should be invested in our future. Though it’s impossible to know the counterfactual – if and how things may have turned out differently had the OTA been maintained –the system we have now is, in fact, designed to exacerbate climate change and permit election meddling and kill over 650,000 Americans with heart disease each year.

On the day before the OTA closed its doors, Amo Houghton stood before the House and concluded his requiem for the agency he so admired. He looked up at Newt Gingrich. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “OTA soon will be a memory, and we will discover what is lost.” Twenty-five years later, I think it’s fair to say we know what was lost. 

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