How Congress is struggling to get smart on tech

June 8, 2018

A quartet of tech experts arrived at a little-noticed hearing at the U.S. Capitol in May with a message: Quantum computing is a bleeding-edge technology with the potential to speed up drug research, financial transactions and more.

To Rep. Adam Kinzinger, though, their highly technical testimony might as well have been delivered in a foreign language. “I can understand about 50 percent of the things you say,” the Illinois Republican confessed.

Kinzinger’s quip drew chuckles from his peers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but it also illustrated an unavoidable challenge on Capitol Hill. Increasingly, members of Congress are confronting a wide array of complex policy debates posed by inventions like artificial intelligence and problems like the rise of Russian propaganda online. And policymakers themselves admit they aren’t fully prepared to deal with the issues.

To address that digital knowledge gap, some in Washington are now angling to revive the Capitol’s old science-and-tech think tank, the Office of Technology Assessment, which lawmakers disbanded amid partisan squabbles in the 1990s. Its foremost advocates, emboldened by recent tech mishaps, say it could aid the U.S. government at a moment when objective advice seems to be in short supply.

Lawmakers earned ridicule in April when they grilled Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg over charges that he had failed to protect 2 billion users’ personal information. At times, Democrats and Republicans alike seemed mystified by the inner workings of a multibillion-dollar American corporation that they’re supposed to regulate.

“After the hearing, I think [lawmakers] are even more cognizant that Congress really should have its own advisers,” said Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), one of the lawmakers pushing to revive the Hill’s tech policy shop.

Even lawmakers who know Silicon Valley well have struggled in the face of dwindling resources. In May, Democrats on a key congressional committee investigating Russia released copies of roughly 3,500 ads purchased by Kremlin-aligned trolls on Facebook during the 2016 race. One of the factors in Democrats’ decision: Republicans on the panel hadn’t afforded them the staff and other tools to dissect the data they obtained.

To be sure, Congress has its share of tech-literate members. They can hire their own staff or seek advice from other organizations, like the Government Accountability Office, where a team of about 50 tech experts study issues as diverse as broadband access and gene editing. But limited resources often threaten to slow down work at GAO while forcing members of Congress to make troubling compromises.

That’s why Takano and fellow Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) are seeking to revive the Office of Technology Assessment. For decades, OTA performed research on subjects like missile defense and climate change, often trying to anticipate controversies before they became fodder for congressional hearings. But some Republican leaders saw the Hill’s research hub as a dollar-sucking endeavor with a liberal tint. They ultimately eliminated its funding in 1995, but left intact the law authorizing it.

This spring, Takano and Foster rallied about 40 of their colleagues in the House—all Democrats—to sign onto a letter describing OTA as a “wise investment” that would “better prepare Congress to account for emerging technologies.” Since then, they’ve notched an early victory: An upcoming budget bill calls for a study to determine if OTA might be useful, a step they believe could build future momentum for its resurrection.

They also plan to offer another amendment at a committee meeting Wednesday that would dedicate a meager $2.5 million for OTA in seed funding. It’s a far cry from the office’s peak in the 1990s, when it sported a roughly $20 million budget and about 140 science and tech experts.

Takano said he inherited the issue from Holt, who tried unsuccessfully for 16 years to restore OTA. But Takano’s political epiphany came in 2016, when the U.S. government sought to force Apple to break the security of an iPhone tied to a deadly mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., near his congressional district. During the trial, Takano said, his peers in Congress sought to legislate on encryption, but they weren’t “fully prepared to understand all the technical issues.”

Whatever the mechanism, there’s still a sense within Congress that it must ready itself for the age of self-driving cars, package-delivering drones and virtual reality—and currently lacks the tech smarts to address the policy challenges they pose.

Washington Post story

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