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On the Demise of OTA

On the Demise of OTA
Autor: Vary Coates
Quelle: Nr. 4, 4. Jahrgang
Datum: Dezember 1995
TA-Institutionen und -Programme

On the Demise of OTA

Following the comment by our colleague, Martin, Socher, in the last issue of "TA-Datenbank-Nachrichten" on the termination of the OTA, the next contribution contains first-hand information and assessment on the same topic. Vary Coates, who is the author of the next two articles, was a Senior Associate in the Office of Technology Assessment, US Congress, and is serving as Interim President of the newly-founded Institute for Technology Assessment (ITA).

On the Demise of OTA

Statement to the International Association of Technology Assessment and Forecasting Institutions (IATAFI)

by Vary Coates

The U.S. Congress has voted to abolish its Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), the 22 year old agency that served as the model for most other technology assessment institutions around the world. OTA must officially close its doors at the end of September, 1995. A small group of OTA analysts has begun efforts to find private sector funding for a non-governmental "Institute for Technology Assessment", that might be a bridge to a new legislative support agency at some future time, under a changed political environment.

The first sign of eminent danger to OTA came soon after the national elections in November, 1994, in which the Republican party won control of both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years. Key Republican legislators were quoted as intending to kill OTA, one of four agencies that are part of the legislative branch of the tripartite U.S. government. (Unlike Parliamentary systems, of course, the U.S. government has three co-equal parts: executive, legislative, and judicial. Few of OTA's admirers took the threat seriously at the time. OTA has always claimed to be, and was generally regarded by those outside of the Congress who were even aware of the small agency, as scrupulously non-partisan. OTA, moreover, always had enjoyed strong support from its governing Technology Assessment Board (TAB), made up of three Senators and three Representatives from each party no matter what the political balance was within the Congress. TAB included some of the most powerful Members from the minority as well as the majority party. Having weathered threatening attacks in its early years OTA had apparently established an unassailable reputation for analytical soundness and integrity although never completely free of criticism from some legislators, who regarded its studies as taking too long and being too unresponsive to immediate legislative battles and agenda. In recent years, this criticism never included overt charges of partisanship.

This criticism swelled during the 103rd Congress, however, fed by the drive to cut government spending and downsize the federal bureaucracy. OTA is a tiny agency by U.S. standards, with fewer than 200 staffers. Its $22 million annual budget constituted about one tenth of one percent of the legislative budget, which itself is minuscule compared to the rest of the federal government's budget. Its small size and specialized work, at the same time, made it one of the few agencies that could be attacked without arousing a large, powerful army of external contractors and lobbyists with self-serving reasons for coming to the defense of a captive bureaucracy. OTA, with a political naiveté that must be nearly unparalleled among governmental organizations, made little effort to bring its danger to the attention of its admirers outside of government - the scientists, engineers, business executives, academics, and public interest representatives who had welcomed participation in OTA workshops and advisory panels as a way of bringing their expertise, insights, and interests to the attention of Congress. In the 1970's, such outside constituents were effective supporters of OTA when its appropriations were in danger. But whether from complacency or simplicity, until almost the final days of the debate over its fate this summer, OTA abjured any semblance of "lobbying" in its own defense lest it offend its critics within the Congress.

In retrospect, OTA had developed serious structural vulnerabilities that brought it down under a partisan attack:

_ Although OTA's Director had the legal authority to initiate studies (thereby serving as an "early warning system" for Congress, TAB and management policy was to select only projects requested by committee chairmen and/or the ranking minority member of the committee. Since the minority members did not set committee agendas or organize Hearings, they rarely requested studies independently. For nearly all of OTA's 22 year lifetime, committee chairmen were Democratic; hence OTA's strong constituents were concentrated in one party - which lost in 1994.

_ Newly elected legislators, for the most part, arrived in Washington never having heard of OTA. This year, more that half of Congressional members were freshmen - mostly Republican, and mostly not beholden even to the Republican members of OTA's TAB. OTA was a convenient place to downsize government, or appear to do so, by "wiping out an entire agency" - and claiming positive action yet offending few constituents in the process.

_ OTA analyses were done, for the most part, for "authorizing" committees - those who prepare and promote legislation and exercise legislative oversight over executive agencies. But OTA's fate ultimately was decided by appropriations committees, whose mandate this year was strongly and narrowly driven by the desire to reduce the national deficit.

_ OTA's strongest supporters, both in and out of Congress, were not bound together by a single shared interest but perhaps by a general attitude toward governance and rational decisionmaking. At the same time that the battle over OTA was being fought - with very little attention from the media - larger, most dramatic, and more immediately consequential battles were also being fought in Congress. Attempts were underway to dismantle environmental regulations, to kill the Endangered Species Act, to cut Medicare and reform welfare programs, to attack family planning agencies, and to wipe out the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Legislators had many claims on their political chips. The attention, the energies, and the resources of many interest groups who might otherwise have rallied behind OTA were already absorbed, on one side or the other, by these battles.

Beyond these structural vulnerabilities was the fact that OTA's culture of even-handed analysis that coolly displayed a wide range of competing interest and values, and presented abstract "options" rather than legislatively appropriate recommendations, had little appeal to legislators newly elected with - as they see it - an over-riding shared mission or mandate to remake government in a new, thoroughly conservative image. It is rare, in the United States, for one of the broad, multi-interests political parties to take office with such a clearly articulated agenda. Older, long-seated legislators, accustomed to leading a minority party, are struggling to appear in control, having to run hard to get in front of the stampede of the young bulls their party has sent to Congress. These new Members have not yet had time to be puzzled by complex technical issues, or to appreciate their need for information independent both of the competing armies of lobbyists that will besiege them and of the executive bureaucracy at the other end of Pennsylvania. Thus they saw little need for OTA

In this light, what happened to OTA is less surprising than it first appeared. Both the House and Senate appropriations committees voted to provide no money for OTA in Fiscal Year 96, which begins Oct. 1. On the floor of the House, a successful revolt led by the Republican chairman of TAB - but largely manned by Democrats - succeeded in amending the appropriations bill by a narrow margin, to fold a smaller OTA under the umbrella of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a much larger sister agency. For days, there appeared real hope that OTA might be saved. The effort to pass a similar amendment on the floor of the Senate failed, however, and a conference committee reconciling the House and Senate appropriations bills accepted the Senate decision to kill OTA. It is worth noting however, that while OTA's budget was wiped out and the intent of Congress was made clear, OTA's founding legislation remains on the books, so that it is possible that the agency could be resurrected by renewed funding in some later Congress.

Throughout the debates and the maneuvering that preceded the votes that killed OTA, even those most committed to its abolition generally praised the agency. It was criticized for working too slowly, not accommodating the demands of the legislative calendar, and broadening its attention too far beyond "technology issues". Arguments were heard that its work could be taken over by other legislative offices, such as the CRS. A few legislators said bluntly that OTA was "too liberal". But there were no charges of incompetence, shoddiness, or lack of integrity. One of its most relentless opponents characterized OTA as a fine agency, but "a luxury we cannot afford".
OTA will close on September 30, after a final spate of about 15 reports are released to Congress and the public. The management and staff are now working hard to make sure that OTA reports will remain available, on-line and in print, for as long as they are relevant to public policy issues.

The question remains, of how to preserve the institutional memory and analytical culture of OTA. Other TA organizations, in other countries, will hopefully carry on and improve on those traditions. Meanwhile, a group of OTA analysts are acting to create an Institute for Technology Assessment (ITA), outside of government, but intended to maintain and preserve the essential idea and ideals of OTA in the hope that in the future, changes in the political climate may make it possible and desirable to revive this valuable organization. Many possibilities for organizational structure, funding, and activities are being discussed and explored. Suggestions and comments from technology assessment colleagues and friends around the world are welcomed. Please send them to Vary Coates, fax (202) 9668349, by mail to 3738 Kanawha St. NW, Washington, DC 20015, or by Internet to cjiSrw1∂tmn com.

Anmerkung der Redaktion

Ende September wurde das OTA geschlossen. Wichtig zu wissen ist jedoch, daß die neuen und die erst kürzlich veröffentlichten Berichte des OTA noch für einige Monate elektronisch über OTA Online (http://www.ota.gov) verfügbar sein werden. Außerdem werden die gedruckten Berichte, solange der Vorrat reicht, noch vom U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) vertrieben. Der National Technical Information Service (NTIS) hält die Berichte des OTA, seine Hintergrunddokumente und 'contracter documents' weiterhin dauerhaft vorrätig.