House votes down attempt to restart tech think tank

Wednesday - 4/30/2014, 5:48pm EDT

(Update: In a 164-248 vote Thursday, the House voted down an amendment filed by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) to reappropriate funding for the Office of Technology Assessment)

When the House votes Thursday to approve fiscal 2015 budgets for a slew of legislative-branch agencies, lawmakers will get a chance to resurrect the small technology agency that once provided Congress with expert technological and scientific advice.

A floor amendment from Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) would siphon off about $2.5 million from the House historic buildings fund to provide start-up funding for a reboot of the Office of Technology Assessment.

Formed in the 1970s, OTA was Congress' personal technology and science think tank. At its peak, the office had about 200 full-time staff members, an annual budget of $22 million and a reputation for debate-influencing technological studies. But amid a wave of budget-cutting in the mid-1990s, Congress voted to defund the OTA. But lawmakers didn't actually override the legislation that created the agency, they simply cut the purse strings that kept it operating.

"It still exists on paper, it just hasn't been funded," Holt told Federal News Radio. "They turned out the lights almost 20 years ago now."

His goal, he said, is to get at least some money pumping back into the agency.

"I'm not proposing to fund it at the level that it would get back to where it was, but I'm confident that as soon as it's operating again, people will see its value and will want to sustain it," he said. "And I think they'll see that it more than pays for itself. Stupid decisions are costly. Uninformed decisions made in ignorance are costly."

'Need is greater than ever,' Congressman says

This is not the first time Holt has tried to breathe new life into the defunct agency. The last time Holt tried to reinstate the OTA in 2011 via amendment, the measure failed to garner enough votes.

What's changed since then?

"The need is greater than ever," he said. "I can't say that I know that the political support is stronger than it was — and we lost then. It shouldn't be so hard to sell the idea that it's worth understanding the technological implications of the issues that we deal with and the policies that we execute."

The botched rollout last fall of HealthCare.gov helped revive interest in restarting the agency, which over the years it operated, produced reports on surveillance in the digital age, AIDS research, oil-spill clean up efforts and how email would affect the operations of the U.S. Postal Service.

Ahead of Thursday's floor vote, Holt, who announced earlier this year he won't seek re-election, said he's talking with colleagues about the benefits of funding the OTA.

"I'm just reminding them of how many decisions we've made in the last few years that would have been easier and better if OTA had been around," he said.

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