During last month's consideration of the FY 2005 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) was unsuccessful in his attempt to increase the scientific analytical staff available to Members of Congress. Holt's amendment, designed to replace some of the capabilities that were lost when the Office of Technology Assessment was closed in 1995, was defeated by a vote of 115-252
The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) was one of the few in-house analytical agencies available to Members of Congress. (Other units are the Library of Congress's Congressional Research Service, the General Accountability Office, and the Congressional Budget Office.) OTA produced high-quality reports on a wide range of technology-related issues that were marked by their evenhandedness, depth, and high quality. After Republicans took control of both the House and Senate in 1995, they sought to reduce what they deemed unnecessary spending, and began by looking at their own operations. Following considerable debate in both chambers, the Office of Technology Assessment was defunded.
Since OTA's closure there has been discussion about reviving it in either its original or a modified form. Holt introduced legislation in 2001 to reestablish OTA which was cosponsored by 87 representatives from both parties. His bill was referred to the House Science Committee, but was never given a hearing or floor consideration.
Holt's latest attempt to revive the capability of the OTA came during House consideration of the FY 2005 Legislative Branch appropriations bill. This bill provides funding for all congressional operations. Holt changed his legislative strategy by proposing to increase funding for the General Accountability Office (GAO) (formerly the General Accounting Office) by $30 million, offsetting this increase through a reduction in the budget for the Architect of the Capitol's administration account and the Government Printing Office. (The Architect of the Capitol is responsible for the maintenance, operation, development and preservation of a large number of buildings on Capitol Hill.)
When explaining his amendment to his colleagues, Holt said the $30 million for GAO would be used for "the development of Scientific and Technology Assessment. This is something that is vital to us here in Congress. It would meet a bipartisan need of Congress to receive more objective, expert and timely advice on the scientific and technological aspects of the issues before us. My amendment would avoid creating any new government agency or bureaucracy, but it would provide Congress with reputable and impartial timely advice and analysis of emerging scientific and technological issues."
He continued, "This is something that was, until 10 years ago, offered by an in-house agency. That is no longer available to us, but the GAO has begun on a pilot basis assuming some of this need and providing us with scientific and technological assessment. Not to have that today is hampering us in doing our work. So this certainly should be added to the appropriation."
Speaking in support of Holt's amendment was Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) who told his colleagues, "A decision was made in 1994 to disband that, and we have since that point been really operating more on ideology I think sometimes than on real scientific bases. . . . We appropriate billions of dollars on issues like treatment of AIDS and what are appropriate kinds of energy questions, and we have no knowledge except for the prejudices of one or another Member about what it is. It is very helpful to have a nonpartisan group to whom we can hand that problem to and say look, at this issue, tell us where we can make the best decisions." Also speaking for the Holt amendment was Rep. C.A. Ruppersberger (D-MD.)
Only one representative spoke against the Holt amendment. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) is the chairman of the Legislative Branch appropriations subcommittee. He outlined his opposition, beginning with "some background in terms of the Office of Technology Assessment. In 1995 on a bipartisan level, we eliminated it, and the belief at that time was that there were other committees that we could turn to to get technology studies and technology assessment. Some of these, for example, are the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council. All of them have hundreds of people who are technically educated. And then in addition to that, there are 3,273 people at the General Accounting Office and 729 at the Congressional Research Service. We have not suffered because of the loss of technology assessment. It is perhaps true that we could rearrange some of the food on the plate and make sure that it does not get shuffled to the back burner; but if my colleagues think about it, Mr. Chairman, we actually have thousands of people out there doing studies, and we just need to make sure that this does not fall through the cracks. As a result of eliminating the Office of Technology Assessment, we have saved $274 million, which is serious money in tight budget times, and that is money that we can put into many other worthy causes; and, of course, that is what the debate is all about." Kingston also described the impacts that shifting money out of the Architect's office and printing office would have on their operations.
Holt's amendment was rejected by a vote of 115 yes to 252 no. The roll call vote may be viewed at http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2004/roll359.xml