Guest perspective by Ralph Nader
When the Republican Gingrich devolution took over Congress in 1995, it stripped the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) of all its funding and left it a shell with no experts to advise committees and members of Congress.
Whereupon Congress was plunged into a dark age regarding decisions about trillions of national security, offshore oil drilling, transportation, energy, health, computer, biotech, nanotechnology and many other executive branch programs in science and technology.
Confronted with partisan vested interests by federal departments and their corporate lobbies, Congress could not get objective, unbiased reports and testimony from the OTA. For a budget of $20 million a year, OTA ground out over 700 peer reviewed sound reports and many more Congressional testimonies by its staff between 1972 and 1995. Last year Congress had an overall budget for itself of $3.2 billion.
Representative Amo Houghton (R-NY) commented at the time of OTA’s demise that “we are cutting off one of the most important arms of Congress when we cut off unbiased knowledge about science and technology.”
Now, Rush Holt (D-NJ) backed by leading scientists and about 100 citizen, technical and academic groups, organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), is urging Speaker Nancy Pelosi to permit a modest restart of the OTA. As noted above, OTA was never abolished, just defunded.
Speaker Pelosi has been resisting, even though this tiny office can provide members of Congress with the technical assessments that could easily save billions of dollars a year. Apparently, she believes that the Republicans will accuse her of empire building, though the OTA is run by an evenly appointed Democratic-Republican Board of Congressional Overseers.
Without the OTA, commercially driven or otherwise wild claims are made for and against Congressionally funded programs.
The UCS (http://www.ucsusa.org) gives many examples of where OTA saved huge amounts of taxpayer money and improved the health, safety and economic well-being of the American people as well. OTA reports, by responding to requests by members of Congress, analyzed what technologies worked or did not work.
After OTA was defunded, the UCS asserts, “the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spent three years pushing for a costly radiation detection system for smuggled nuclear material that did not work as promised, while neglecting to upgrade existing equipment that could have improved security.” Billions of dollars were wasted.
Were it operating today, OTA reports and testimony might question DHS’s installation of whole body back scatter x-ray airport security scanners. Scientific experts are urging independent testing for effectiveness and safety for exposed passengers (see CSRL.org).
On other fronts, Congress is buckling to corporate lobbies and requiring taxpayer guarantees for nuclear power plants that are not nearly as cost effective as energy efficiency and renewables without the perils of atomic power and its unstored radioactive wastes.
The $9 billion a year missile defense project has been condemned as unworkable by the mainstream American Physical Society but the military corporations that receive these boondoggle contracts get it funded year after year.
The risks of nanotechnology, biotechnology and numerous medical devices continue to be unassessed, thereby allowing Congressional advocates to tout benefits and ignore costs.
Congress spends billions of dollars a year on technologies driven by commercial partisan interests, whether from government departments, corporate interests or campaign cash. Congress also ignores promising technologies. Decades of little or no solar energy research and development funding, and billions of dollars into atomic, coal and other fossil fuels, directly or indirectly through tax breaks, have cost Americans in their pocketbooks and in the air and water they breath and drink.
In 1985, OTA issued a report cautioning about the lack of preparedness and knowledge regarding potentially “catastrophic oil spills from offshore operations.” OTA could not follow up on this report, as the oil companies went into deeper seas, because it was silenced in 1995. Clearly, the Minerals Management Service of the Interior Department—a sleazy, wholly-owned subsidiary of Big Oil—was not going to advise Congress truthfully.
Through its impartial assessment capability, OTA could have alerted Congress to defective body armor that unscrupulous companies sold to the Army.
Congress needs an independent, impartial, no-axe-to-grind technical adviser under its own roof and responsive to the unique and timely needs of members of Congress and Congressional committees. Imagine, for example, the computer procurement waste that could have been prevented.