Testimony of Zach Graves to the United States Senate, Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch

The following testimony was delivered on May 1, 2020.

Dear Chairman Hyde-Smith, Ranking Member Murphy, and members of the committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony. Over the past two years, there has been considerable interest and new research surrounding the question of how to enhance science and technology capacity in the legislative branch, and in particular, whether it should revive the Office of Technology Assessment or invest in a similar entity such as the Government Accountability Office’s Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team. Given our current crisis with COVID-19, and the unprecedented new expenditures surrounding it, the conversation around building deeper science and technology expertise and oversight capacity is more important than ever.

As you know, following a provision in the fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill, the National Academy of Public Administration conducted a wide-ranging study examining science and technology resources within Congress. NAPA’s report identified important gaps, and reaffirmed a narrative of historical decline in the legislative branch’s staffing and capacity. This narrative has been supported and augmented with additional studies by Harvard University (including one I co-authored), and numerous reports by think tanks on both the left and right. This literature, including the NAPA recommendations, is also reviewed in-depth in a new report from the Congressional Research Service.

In its report, CRS outlines five approaches:

  1. Reestablish OTA Without Changes to Its Statute
  2. Reestablish OTA with Changes to Its Statute
  3. Charge an Existing Agency or Agencies with New or Expanded Technology Assessment Authorities and Duties
  4. Use the National Academies for Technology Assessment
  5. Rely on a Broad Range of Existing Organizations for Scientific and Technical Analysis and Technology Assessment

Of these options, (2) and (3) have drawn the greatest support, and arguably have the fewest drawbacks. While there are many both inside and outside of Congress who favor restoring the Office of Technology Assessment, most recognize the need to update its model, which was conceived in the 1960s and designed for how Congress worked in that era. Other analysts have pointed to STAA as a more politically feasible vehicle for this work, but also warn of the institutional challenges it has yet to overcome. 

Since 2019, STAA has grown to over 80 FTE staff and undertaken thorough reviews of its methodological approach for technology assessment (as well as developing other products). But if it is to fill this role, there is still much that needs to happen for it to mature both institutionally and in terms of staffing capacity. The remainder of my remarks are focused on addressing this challenge.

Serving Congress Beyond Committees

A major design limitation of OTA was that it primarily served committee leadership (this small support base also facilitated its political downfall). GAO’s request process, governed by its congressional protocols, operates along similar lines. Yet, the need for science and technology expertise and analysis extends beyond just committee chairmen and ranking members. While this system is meant in part to manage scarce resources, there are potential approaches to open up shorter form analytic products to a broader constituency within Congress. To that end, we request the following report language:

Review of Congressional Protocols for S&T: The Government Accountability Office is requested to provide a report within 180 days on options to amend its congressional protocols, with respect to technology assessments and other non-audit reports generated by its STAA team, to address requests from congressional committees on a bipartisan basis, as well as make services available to individual member offices. This analysis may wish to consider factors in request prioritization such as bicameral and bipartisan requests, report type and length, as well as the number of Members making the request.

Leveraging Outside Talent

As Comptroller General Gene Dodaro discusses in his recent testimony in the House of Representatives, GAO is actively exploring this use of temporary project-based staff for science and technology work at STAA. The use of rotators and project-based staff helps promote an interchange between academia and government, leading to the development of expert networks and staff expertise that otherwise wouldn’t be possible to get in government. To encourage utilization and adoption of this model, we request the following report language:

Report on Hiring Authorities: The Government Accountability Office is requested to provide a report to this committee and to publish online within 180 days a report on available hiring authorities and their utilization for science and technology work in STAA, as well as how it might adapt talent and networking models from DARPA, the National Science Foundation, and the former Office of Technology Assessment.

Creating a Stronger STAA

Recent criticism of STAA, including analysis in the NAPA report and from CRS, have pointed to its challenges in moving quickly and separating itself from GAO’s audit-focused culture and bureaucracy. To address these issues and build consensus around STAA, policymakers should explore additional ways to give STAA greater autonomy. This might include a separate appropriations line item, or modeling the relationship between the Congressional Research Service and the Library of Congress (see: 2 U.S.C. § 166). This issue could also potentially be addressed through report language, such as:

Research Independence: The Comptroller General is requested to study and implement changes to afford STAA and its director the maximum practicable research administrative independence within GAO, including hiring and firing authority, consistent with its strategic objectives to serve as a science and technology advisor to the Congress.

Additionally, while we know there are significant limitations to what can be funded, we respectfully urge you to support GAO’s budget request to provide additional resources for this important work. As with GAO and the original OTA, we believe a fully-funded STAA can provide a return to taxpayers that greatly exceeds its budget.

Thank you for your ongoing attention to this issue, and thank you for the opportunity to testify.

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