RESEARCH : Congress' Own 'Think Tank' Falls Victim to Cuts by GOP


As members of Congress evaluate the effects of spending cuts they are making to balance the federal budget, they will have to look no further than at the quality of research crossing their desks.

To save $22 million a year, Congress has shut its Office of Technology Assessment, an agency created 23 years ago to help lawmakers navigate the difficult waters of scientific legislation.

The closure this month eliminated all 200 jobs at the agency, draining away a pool of expertise and setting up a question that can be answered only over time: Was the office vital for a Congress that deals in an increasingly complicated world, or was it largely doing work that duplicated studies available elsewhere or that could be done by one of Congress' two other research offices?

The technology office was the first of several agencies that congressional Republicans want to eliminate entirely, as opposed to the more common government practice of shutting down some branches of an agency or restructuring services administratively.

Proposals are on the table to dismantle more agencies, most notably the entire Commerce Department. It is a strategy that many Democrats have decried as shortsighted and potentially disastrous.


Often called "Congress' think tank," the OTA produced about 50 highly respected studies each year on everything from genetic engineering to nuclear weapons defense. It was solidly nonpartisan. As required by Congress, it never endorsed any individual policy, but presented several options.

To maintain impartiality, the office was overseen by a board with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats and an even split of senators and representatives. Studies were begun only at the request of members of each party.

To its supporters, the agency was the picture of efficiency--a model of impartial and thorough analysis that Congress will be unable to find elsewhere.

"A lot of people give advice to Congress, but these are people with agendas, and I worry that it won't have a way of sorting through that advice," said Roger Herdman, who had headed the office since 1993.

But lawmakers who fought for elimination of the office argue that other congressional resources will fill the gap. Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) complained that the office produced information already in the public domain and available for collection by other fact-finding agencies, such as the General Accounting Office and Congressional Research Service.

Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), a member of the OTA's board and its most outspoken congressional champion, countered that no other support agency can take on the technology office's workload.


Shifting the work will prove difficult. Charles Bowsher, the GAO comptroller general, said that asking an agency in the middle of severe budget and staff cuts to take on the extra responsibilities of the technology office is "not too feasible."

The GAO, which for 20 years has maintained a staff of at least 5,300, has been reduced to 3,500, Bowsher said, and is "obviously not at a hiring point where we will be bringing in new people with different kinds of knowledge."

Nonetheless, he emphasized that the GAO will do what it can to fill the gap.

"We will be able to take over some of their work, but we cannot take it all over," he said. "Most of the high-technology reports the office used to do, we obviously don't have the expertise for."

Angela Evans, a director of research planning and coordination at the Congressional Research Service, agreed that her agency cannot duplicate the technology office.

Evans said her agency already has taken on a few requests that would normally go to the technology office.

"It has always been a major undertaking for our office to try to do those kind of requests," she said.

If agencies like the GAO and the research service are in fact able to cover for the technology office, the experience will fuel the fires for more cuts.

But fans of the technology office say it won't take long before the void left by the agency hurts Congress and its work.

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