Washington, DC seems like a mecca of experts, brimming with “know-it-alls” on everything from sugar policy to Persian history. But, at a time when dozens of intricate technology policies are being decided, in-house expertise on Capitol Hill is lacking. Whether shoring up cybersecurity, addressing bitcoin, or figuring out how to regulate driverless cars, lawmakers have to turn to their dwindling staffs or outside groups for technical expertise.
This hasn’t always been the case. The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) operated as Congress’s think tank for two decades before being defunded in 1995 and many members of Congress and talking heads are feeling nostalgic for the good ol’ days. Senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren (D-Ma.) waxes poetic about the OTA, and claims that its return would make for a more-capable Congress. Bringing back expertise to Capitol Hill, though, would have an adverse impact on the leading debates gripping the federal government. “Federal think tank” setups too often stamp a seal of authority on ill-fated policies, spelling disaster for taxpayers and consumers.
To understand why this counter-intuitive result occurs, the history of the OTA is worth examining. Created in 1972, the OTA quickly morphed into an organization with more than 200 employees. In its heyday, the OTA would have thirty active research projects at any given time. Ideally, an ideologically-balanced brain trust would provide timely, detailed reports analyzing the pros and cons of major policy options.
But in order to have a major policy impact, OTA had to step on some toes. In opining against President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (commonly known as “star wars”), Republicans accused the OTA of being a hotbed of academic liberals blinded by hatred of the right. This caused the OTA to take on a far more low-key role, lest an angry Congress abolished them on a whim. But in trying to be quieter and selecting lower-key issues, OTA reports influenced the passage of some truly-disastrous pieces of legislation.
In analyzing the decline of the textile industry, OTA authors discussed a range of possible import restrictions, while barely touching on the consequences of trade protectionism. Contributing scholars from advocacy groups such as Fiber, Fabric, and Apparel Coalition for Trade used this decidedly pro-tariff report to give a stamp of legitimacy on their efforts. The authority and credibility bestowed on the pro-tariff position led to the passage of the Omnibus Foreign Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988, which threatened onerous tariffs by forcing the federal government to enforce harsh trade laws. A particularly egregious provision, known as “Super 301,” allowed the federal government to pursue retaliatory action against countries for a host of “unfair” trade practices. Though the provision has since expired, the constant threat of revival means the ever-present possibility of higher prices for customers.
Congress also used OTA input in creating the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) in 1991, which amounts to little more than a slush fund for large businesses and the poster child for corporate welfare. ATP, designed by industrial policy “experts” trying to emulate Japan’s (short-lived) economic success, morphed into a bonanza for Fortune 500 companies that sought federal research dollars as a first resort.
Expertise, of course, is not a bad thing. But organizations like the OTA and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS; probably OTA’s closest modern equivalent) stymie intellectual debate by giving a single analysis an official stamp of approval. People are simply less likely to pick apart a finding by a “non-partisan” group of researchers than an outwardly-ideological organization like the Heritage Foundation or Center for American Progress.
For example, when an NAS report was released defending the effectiveness of Department of Energy research programs, many outlets lauded the findings as proof positive that said programs were worthy of future funding. Few questioned the dubious metrics used for the analysis, or how key variables were constructed. Similarly, NAS’s 2004 analysis of the link between firearms and violence continues to be heavily cited by both sides of the debate, despite research limitations and newer available studies.
In contrast, research put out by ideological think tanks and advocacy groups are regularly disputed and challenged by folks on the other side of the aisle. Left-of-center groups regularly attempt to debunk Heritage and Mercatus studies about immigration and health-care respectively, and in doing so, raise questions about methodologies. This constant strike and counterstrike contributes far more to intellectual discourse than revered studies by “non-biased experts.”
Ultimately, lawmakers from different sides of the aisle will stick to friendly think-tanks in dissecting proposed legislation. Dueling experts from rival brain trusts may be called to testify, with similar datasets sometimes yielding surprisingly-different results. In-house expertise takes away from that vital give-and-take, establishing bad ideas and bilking taxpayers and customers in the process.
Rather than try to reestablish a flawed source of “smart” policy, presidential hopefuls such as Sen. Warren should look to dynamic market-based policies that could guarantee continued American innovation for decades to come. U.S. taxpayers and consumers need sound policies, not another think-tank.