Two years into the pandemic, America faced a silicon-coated crisis. Semiconductors, the electronic components that power computer chips in countless machines essential to everyday life—from laptops and cars to defibrillators and pacemakers—were in short supply, thanks to stress on the global supply chain from COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine. In the summer of 2022, the semiconductor shortage had affected nearly every sector of the U.S. economy. Retail shelves were empty of gaming consoles and other consumer electronics, and auto companies were rolling new cars from assembly lines into fields to wait for new chips to arrive. A global distribution system hollowed out by corporate greed and mismanagement was nearing collapse.

Fixing this sprawling problem fell to Congress, but the task was daunting. Lawmakers in charge of crafting the CHIPS and Science Act needed expert knowledge of technical fields, including microprocessing, manufacturing, distribution, and economic development, as well as high-level guidance on how to navigate complex, interdependent global supply chains and thorny geopolitical relationships. The chips in your personal computer are designed in the U.S., built in Taiwan, assembled in China, and then shipped by companies based in Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, and France. The system is fragile, relying on single sources for some materials—one company in the Netherlands manufactures components essential to many advanced chips—and vulnerable to international conflict. China, for instance, considers itself the rightful owner of Taiwan, and has positioned its military to threaten the island country. Congress, meanwhile, is aging and famously tech illiterate. Chuck Schumer, who leads Senate Democrats, still uses a flip phone, and Senator Lindsey Graham boasts that he has never sent an email. Congress clearly was going to need some help. 

Thankfully, three years earlier, in 2019, Congress had created a new office designed to provide lawmakers with precisely what they needed in this case: informed, impartial assessments of sophisticated technological issues. The newly minted office of Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics—hardly a name to make the poets tremble—was at the ready. When Congress began to debate the CHIPS Act, STAA experts compiled more than 70 policy options to address the semiconductor crisis, briefed legislative committees behind the scenes, and later released a report that explained the issue in plain English. The final bill, a $280 billion package meant to shore up American R&D, bring factories back within U.S. borders, train a generation of scientists and engineers, and fix the supply chain problems of a dozen publicly traded companies, ultimately reflected many of the agency’s recommendations. The CHIPS and Science Act became law in August 2022; in anticipation of its passage, companies began announcing plans to bring multibillion-dollar semiconductor fabs back to the U.S. The bill’s passage marked a signature victory for Congress, and an encouraging sign that it had the capacity to pass sweeping legislation to address complex technical issues. 

It also marked yet another victory for the STAA, which has filled a critical void in the legislative branch. For decades, lawmakers have relied on a patchwork of advice from executive branch agencies, academics, lobbyists, and legislative agencies pinch-hitting on subjects they didn’t specialize in. The STAA now has 150 full-time employees, including nuclear physicists, engineers, and computer scientists, who can offer guidance on topics including artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency, and fusion energy. In its first four years, the STAA has educated members of Congress and their staff on emerging technology such as virtual reality and 5G broadband; designed interactive web tools that help federal agencies make their services easier and safer to use; and likely saved the government billions of dollars by helping federal defense programs avoid expensive boondoggles based on faulty science. It has also published dozens of in-depth “Technology Assessments,” forward-looking reports on emerging fields such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence, helping to alert Congress to challenges looming on the horizon. 

In a sea of bleak analyses about the future of the American experiment, the STAA offers a measure of hope, not only for the wonks who care about the federal government’s ability to craft smart policy, but for anyone interested in preserving and strengthening our democracy. In the past 30 years, as U.S. lawmakers cut their own budgets, the executive branch has grown in both size and influence. Now, Congress appears at last willing to respond by boosting its own capacity too—and not only through the creation of the STAA. Since 2019, the legislative branch has made steady increases to overall funding for staff, along with other policies—instituting a pay floor, lifting a pay cap—that are meant to recruit and retain experienced personnel. Reversing the brain drain among legislative staff and in its research offices puts Congress in a position to once again act as a coequal branch of government, capable of reining in presidential overreach, clarifying its legislation in the face of activist meddling by the conservative Supreme Court, and restoring citizens’ faith in the ability of legislators to govern.

None of this is to say that the STAA is perfect or a panacea to Congress’s ailments. It’s neither. The office is structured to be less ambitious and independent than many of its proponents would like; instead of making the STAA a free-standing agency, lawmakers placed it within the Government Accountability Office, an agency that is well respected for its audits of federal programs, but not as known for sweeping, vision-setting work. The STAA is also still very young, and it is still learning to conduct the kind of research that might shape Congress’s vision for the future. Its analysis on semiconductors, for example, was helpful but hardly transformative. It came late in the bill-writing process and lacked detail about how to turn ideas into concrete policy. Even the STAA’s director, John Neumann, told me the agency’s influence on the CHIPS and Science Act was likely limited. 

But whether this little office succeeds matters. If it earns legislators’ trust and if committees begin to rely on its expertise, it will be allowed to grow bigger and better. And as it becomes increasingly indispensable, it will serve as a model for other sources of expertise and forward-looking, thoughtful policy recommendations. At a time in U.S. history where know-nothing politics drowns out scientific knowledge, citizens’ faith in government institutions is at a record low, and Congress struggles to even pass a budget, whether—or how—this wonky outpost succeeds might very well chart a path forward. 

Looming over this new office is the shadow of its defunct predecessor, the Office of Technology Assessment. Known for making bold pronouncements, but killed off over a political grudge, the OTA shaped the creation of the STAA through its rise and fall. First authorized in 1972, the OTA was part of Congress’s response to the growing power of the executive branch—a means of monitoring expensive and potentially wasteful programs while providing Congress with the expertise it needed to pass effective legislation on complex technological issues. 

Time and again, the OTA’s forward-looking studies, written in clear language but backed by scientific rigor, alerted Congress to technological issues it hadn’t yet considered. As the Washington Monthly noted in a 2019 story about the OTA, Congress added mammograms and Pap smears to Medicare coverage after the agency found that they provided health benefits at a low cost. (See Grace Gedye, “How Congress Got Dumb on Tech—And How It Can Get Smart,” April/May/June 2019.) Congress banned most private employers from using polygraph tests after an OTA report questioned their accuracy. The agency also prevented government waste by flagging ill-conceived projects based on bad science, just as the STAA and the GAO do today. When the OTA found that the Jimmy Carter administration’s $86 billion synthetic fuel project wouldn’t be a cost-effective alternative, Congress pulled close to three-quarters of its funding. Back then, the OTA was so widely respected that a delegation from the Netherlands came to study its methods. (Imagine that happening today.) 

Part of the OTA’s effectiveness was the result of its structure—an arcane topic that nevertheless became critical in recent years when Congress began considering how it might revive the agency. For instance, to ensure that the OTA’s work was relevant to Congress’s needs, studies were approved and overseen by a bipartisan, bicameral body of legislators called the Technology Assessment Board. And to access all the science and technology brainpower America had to offer, the OTA devised a system to bring in outside experts—academics, private-sector researchers—as rotating staff members and as coauthors of its technology assessments. Another strength of the OTA’s was its ability to translate that technical know-how for nonexpert readers. As the late Scott Shuger wrote in a 1989 Monthly story on the OTA, the formula for success was “readable, compelling reports written by authors who understand the human dimensions of technological problems.”

Eventually, however, the OTA poured cold water on the wrong head—Ronald Reagan’s. In the mid-1980s, the president had been touting a missile defense project that would stop Soviet nukes by, among other high-tech means, zapping them with lasers. Detractors dubbed it the “Star Wars” program. Ashton Carter, the young OTA physicist writing the agency’s report (and later secretary of defense under Barack Obama), concluded that the chances of the project working were “so remote that it should not serve as the basis of public expectation or national policy.” Star Wars was abandoned, but Republicans’ resentment lingered.

A decade later, in 1995, Republicans took control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years, having campaigned on shrinking the bloated federal bureaucracy. The new Republican House speaker, Newt Gingrich, set his sights on the OTA. Scrapping the small agency would allow him and his colleagues to honor their central campaign promise while also settling an old score. To prove it was serious about limiting government, the Republican Congress cut its own budget, reducing overall staff by a third and zeroing out the OTA entirely. The resulting blow to the legislative branch’s institutional knowledge would be felt for decades. (In 2010, the Tea Party Congress followed suit by again slashing its own budget.) 

Though the rancor over Star Wars likely contributed to the OTA’s demise, it was an easy target. For one, eliminating this small, independent office provided Republicans with a savory headline: They could claim to have cut an entire agency, making the savings sound bigger than they were. For another, the OTA had strong relationships with committee staffers and the senior legislators on its advisory board, but had fewer ties to the rank-and-file members whose support it needed when leadership turned over.

Almost immediately after the OTA vanished, former employees, legislators, and good-governance advocates began clamoring for its return. Lawmakers introduced bills year after year to re-fund the agency, which was still authorized by statute. None of the bills passed. A key advocate in the early 2000s was Democratic Representative Rush Holt, a physicist who watched with alarm as Congress fell behind the rapidly accelerating technological curve. Though his efforts, too, were unsuccessful, Holt retired in 2015 having devised an architecture for a new science and tech office that would be housed within the GAO. The Holt plan would come in handy just a few years later.

The moment came in 2018, after Congress called a series of hearingswith tech executives over scandals such as the Cambridge Analytica affair—the revelation that the data broker had improperly gained access to millions of Facebook users’ information as part of its efforts to help the 2016 Trump campaign. Cambridge Analytica was part of a cascade of troubling news about tech in American politics. Russian operatives during the election had seeded discord and disinformation in social media, whose attention-seeking algorithms encouraged the bile to spread. These weren’t all liberal concerns fueled by the rise of Trump; conservatives complained that tech companies were censoring right-leaning views. The stakes for these hearings were high. Lawmakers needed to show that they understood the problem and were prepared to act.

Instead, the hearings were a catastrophic embarrassment. The late Senator Orrin Hatch, then in his 80s, who was apparently not briefed on the basics of Facebook’s business model, asked how the company could survive financially without collecting money from its users. “Senator, we run ads,” replied CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In another hearing, Representative Ted Poe, a Republican from Texas, waved an iPhone around as he quizzed Google CEO Sundar Pichai about location tracking. “I have an iPhone, and if I move from here and go over there and sit with my Democrat friends, which will make them real nervous, does Google track my movement?” he asked, brandishing a product that Google does not make. Pichai demurred, noting that it would depend on whether the user had Google apps installed. But that only served to enrage Poe. “It’s not a trick question,” the congressman said. “You know, you make $100 million a year. You ought to be able to answer that question.” In reality, Google does track many iPhone users who use its services, but the opportunity to dig into that issue was wasted. Poe’s grandstanding showcased only his own tech illiteracy.

News coverage afterward focused on legislators’ woeful lack of knowledge rather than on the very real concerns about the future of online privacy and American democracy. Compilations proliferated on YouTube of gray-haired lawmakers asking rambling, nonsensical questions about what their grandchildren were up to online. But there was a silver lining: The humiliation pushed Congress to act. 

The Facebook hearing took place in April 2018. At a House Appropriations Committee hearing later that month, legislators called for a new office that would advise them on science and technology. “No agency has stepped in to fill the void since OTA was abruptly defunded,” including existing agencies like the GAO and the Congressional Research Service, Democratic Representative Mark Takano told the committee. On the advice of advocates like Zach Graves, then director of technology policy at the R Street Institute, Congress commissioned a study on what to do next. Meanwhile, Gene Dodaro, the comptroller general of the GAO, signaled during hearings that his agency was ready and willing to host the new office. In January 2019, the GAO announced the launch of the STAA, responding to a Senate report that urged the GAO to create a dedicated science and tech office. 

Nevertheless, the debate over where to direct funding to improve Congress’s understanding of science and technology raged all through that year. On one side, admirers of the OTA, including Representative Sean Casten, a Democrat from Illinois, pushed to create an independent office that would look like the defunct agency. Casten told the Appropriations Committee that he had relied on the OTA’s assessments when he worked as a private-sector chemical engineer in the 1990s—a testament to the strength of the analysis. Congress needs an independent agency that gives it objective advice, he said, adding, “I am pretty sure I am the only freshman member of Congress who made a campaign pledge to restore the OTA.”

On the other side, many members were hesitant to create a new, standalone entity with conservative resentment still lingering over the OTA. Almost 40 years later, Star Wars was still a sore subject. In an appropriations hearing, Representative Bill Posey, a Florida Republican, accused the OTA of endangering national security by revealing sensitive information in its missile defense analysis. Posey also charged that the agency had made “wasteful use of taxpayer dollars” and “strayed from its nonpartisan origins … and published biased studies.” 

In February, Dodaro, the GAO chief, put in his bid to host Congress’s new research office, noting that his agency’s oversight work in recent years had saved an estimated $124 for every dollar spent, and that GAO already conducted technology assessments similar to what Congress was calling for. “I am here to assure you that we are prepared, if you decide to go that way, to handle those additional responsibilities,” he told the Appropriations Committee. 

In October, the report that Congress had commissioned from the National Academy of Public Administration arrived. Though the authors mostly punted on the question of what a revived OTA might look like, they recommended that Congress invest in the GAO, noting that the agency had been writing forward-looking technology assessments since 2002. The NAPA report seemed to give the lawmakers who supported the GAO plan permission to act, so Congress approved a budget request from the GAO that fully funded the STAA. “Congress chose the path of least resistance,” Graves told me. “There was some skepticism that the OTA would be viable in the current political environment.”

Setting aside the discussion about its ideal form, the STAA has already proved itself a dynamic and ambitious presence in the congressional policy-making scene. The office is now roughly the same size as the OTA was in 1994, before it was defunded, and is hiring still more scientists and engineers. 

In general, the STAA’s mandate is similar to the OTA’s. The STAA produces OTA-like projects such as technology assessments, but it moves much more quickly. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, OTA assessments took as long as 18 months to complete—far too long in today’s fast-paced environment, where members of Congress might request information about a policy discussion unfolding in real time. So the STAA has also introduced “spotlights”: two-page explainers of emerging technology issues tailored to legislators’ here-and-now needs. With phones still technically banned on the House floor, the spotlights are just the right length to be printed out and put in the hand of a member of Congress standing up to debate. The new office has also embraced video explainers, colorful infographics, and interactive online tools that can help policy-makers visualize the complex concepts, like long COVID or blockchain technology, that their work must address. 

Inheriting the GAO’s accountability-focused architecture brings certain benefits, as well. Like its parent agency, the STAA is good at evaluating whether federal programs are running on time and on budget, and whether their underlying technology will work—analysis that saves taxpayer money and makes us safer. Take, for instance, the Department of Homeland Security’s BioWatch program, which tracks air quality measurements in dozens of U.S. cities in order to provide early warning of bioterrorist attacks. A recent inspector general’s report found that BioWatch, established after the 2001 anthrax attacks, was prone to false positives and also couldn’t detect many of the biological weapons that could be used against the U.S. (Perhaps for security reasons, the public version of the report is light on details as to what those might be, though the word variola—smallpox—makes an appearance.) In 2021, the STAA evaluated the DHS’s latest candidate to replace BioWatch, a program called Biological Detection for the 21st Century, or BD-21, which would use advanced machine-learning algorithms to more quickly and reliably parse sensor data to detect potential threats. The program, the STAA concluded, “faces technical challenges due to inherent limitations in the (underlying) technologies” that could lead to still more false alarms. DHS officials concurred with the agency’s assessment and pulled the program, at least for now. 

It’s difficult to know exactly how much money was saved, especially since the DHS hasn’t said whether or how it might revive the project. But one can compare the withdrawal of BD-21 to an earlier program designed to replace BioWatch, which also proved to be ineffective. That project, called Gen-3, would have cost $5.7 billion, but would have been similarly unreliable, the GAO found in an audit before the STAA came online. The STAA estimates that the government saved about $2.1 billion by canceling Gen-3 and repurposing some of the work that went into it. Not bad for what was then a three-year-old office. 

Beyond BioWatch, the STAA has audited numerous other defense projects, including the $127 billion Columbia-class submarine, which the U.S. Navy claims it will deliver in record time. (The STAA had its doubts, and advised the Department of Defense to adopt a risk assessment schedule and provide updates on its implementation.)

Supporters of the old OTA, especially those who would have preferred to see it return as a free-standing agency, hope that the STAA will take a cue or two from its predecessor. Peter Blair, a former assistant director of the OTA who now studies congressional science and technology policy, laments that the STAA so far has been more focused on accountability work than on vision-setting analysis, such as the old OTA’s cutting-edge studies on solar power satellites and artificial hearts. “I fear that the culture of the GAO creeps into its technology assessments,” he says. 

To add vision and relevance to the STAA’s work, some advocates have recommended adopting OTA-like traits such as a Technology Assessment Board. Graves, for instance, cowrote a paper with Daniel Schuman, a policy director at Demand Progress who has been instrumental in building back Congress’s staff and research capacity, that recommends such a “hybrid” approach. By creating an advisory panel of lawmakers who oversee its research, the STAA could ensure that its work is relevant to Congress. And Blair, for his part, suggested that the STAA could add more heft to its analysis by creating a stronger mechanism to bring in outside experts and conduct peer reviews of its studies. 

Consider the CHIPS Act, for instance. Though the STAA’s advisory work on semiconductors was done on deadline, with a more detailed paper to follow, it was relatively anemic. Rather than presenting original research or new policy ideas, the 39-page report was a summary of policy options that appeared in other sources, along with the opinions of academic, government, and industry experts interviewed by the agency. Curiously, those experts aren’t named, which gives little context for the reader to evaluate their motivations for preferring one policy over another. (Especially when they opine that the private sector is “better positioned” than government to regulate the supply chain.)

The STAA’s leadership is aware of the concerns that Blair and others share, and appear receptive to at least some of them. The former codirector Tim Persons, who left the STAA for the private sector late last year, told me the office is building its capacity to bring in outside help. Right now, authors of STAA studies convene one-time meetings with leading experts, and then informally consult them as they research and write. But the agency doesn’t include outsiders as coauthors, nor does it appear to have plans to institute true peer review. And Persons said the STAA is unlikely to take on an OTA-like advisory board, either. All of those paths would likely clash with the GAO’s institutional culture, which puts a premium on its own independence. “The evolution has been slow,” Persons said. “It takes time to develop because that’s not how we’ve done things.” 

In some ways, the STAA’s creation is a lesson in pragmatic politics. Its structure—as an entity within the GAO—may not have been exactly what its proponents had hoped for, but it got the job done. The STAA exists today after nearly 25 years of hand-wringing and failed bills. And its accountability-focused, collaborative GAO architecture may also pave the way for its survival in a world where scientific truth is so often politicized. 

The GAO is successful in part because of its “just the facts, ma’am, approach,” Don Kettl, a professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, told me. The agency’s auditors know how to frame their analysis to make clear why they’re scrutinizing a program, where their information comes from, and how they arrive at their conclusions. “They are super scrupulous in not doing anything that could be perceived as partisan,” Kettl said. Members of Congress will sometimes demand information from legislative researchers that they hope will embarrass their rivals. But the bureaucrats at the GAO are masters at narrowing the question, Kettl said, or burying the request in a queue, or giving a response that cites other sources, putting the sensitive parts in someone else’s words. (The OTA had some experience in that as well, according to Blair, who remembers once receiving a request from a representative who wanted proof that an expensive supercollider could not be built in a rival’s district because of dangerous fire ants.) 

Beyond that, the GAO and subsidiary offices like the STAA have a collaborative, rather than adversarial, approach that may be more likely to encourage members of Congress to embrace their conclusions—as well as ensure the office’s long-term persistence. Rather than hanging its targets out to dry for a mistake, the GAO will work with them to correct the problem. The joke, Kettl said, is that the agency’s average report will conclude, “Progress is being made, but more improvement is needed.” 

Neumann, the current director of the STAA, told me his office had good relationships with members of Congress, who appreciate that the agency presents multiple policy options and lets lawmakers decide what’s best. The STAA has built a reputation for impartiality and robust assessments, he said, so when it publishes a critical report, agency officials will say, “ ‘I’m not happy about it, but I see how you got there.’ ” Neumann added, “They can see our evidence and it stands for itself.”

Despite Congress’s reputation as the most sclerotic of branches, politicians in both parties have recognized that they need knowledge and resources to do their jobs, and have gotten it together to act. If what they have created is a more courteous, collaborative animal, able to tackle substantive issues while ruffling fewer feathers, perhaps that’s suited to the times. If the STAA can earn the trust of the lawmakers it serves, its fact-based, results-focused advice will result in policy that better anticipates the future. And it may even serve as a model for other offices. In an era where standing up for objective fact is perilous, government agencies need the ability to speak scientific truths—and survive.

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Rob Wolfe

Rob Wolfe is an editor at the Washington Monthly.