Two decades ago, Congress picked a particularly bad way to save money.
Lawmakers, in a frenzy of federal budget-cutting, decided to fire their own dedicated corps of advisers on science and technology. The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)—a group of about 140 primarily PhD experts who educated members of Congress and performed deep-dive studies to inform legislation—was disbanded in order to save taxpayers about $20 million a year. But the cut was ultimately costly. Failures ranging from an unworkable cybersecurity bill to lawmakers’ ineffective oversight of NSA surveillance programs are directly attributable to Congress’ inability to make sense of technology issues, and at least partially attributable to the elimination of the OTA.
Justin Talbot-Zorn (@JustinZorn) is a Truman National Security Fellow and public policy consultant. He has served as legislative director to three members of Congress. Sridhar Kota is the Herrick professor of engineering at the University of Michigan. He served as assistant director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during President Obama’s first term.
In its budget-cutting zeal over the past two decades, Congress also reduced funding for committee staff by roughly a third—meaning many of the economists, issue experts, and agency veterans responsible for managing fact-finding hearings and designing major legislation lost their jobs. So, too, did dozens of researchers at Congress’ other leading analytical agencies, the Government Accountability Office and Congressional Research Service. Today, America’s legislative research agencies have 20 percent less staff than they did in 1979.
As the new 115th Congress grapples with how to legislate in the context of fake news and rising technological complexity, this so-called Congressional lobotomy has increasingly serious consequences. While some special interest lobbyists may actually benefit from the absence of impartial expert advising on Capitol Hill, the nation as a whole is in desperate need of legislators with capacity to separate truth from falsehood and make sense of technical issues from advanced manufacturing to Zika.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Even if Congress keeps failing to appropriate funds for its own technical research and advising, there’s no reason that a country with an unrivaled 147 of the world’s top-ranked universities shouldn’t be able to piece together the collective brainpower to keep its federal lawmakers informed. Institutions of higher ed should think about augmenting Congress’ technical capacity.
While most colleges and universities have federal affairs liaisons and engage in various forms of federal service through the National Academies or other institutions, their work with Capitol Hill is usually focused primarily on winning appropriations, letters of support for research efforts, and favorable policy fixes on issues relevant to higher ed. Aside from occasionally providing an expert witness for a committee hearing, there are few opportunities to augment lawmakers’ intellectual endeavors.
By taking on some of the tasks that once belonged to in-house experts like the OTA, universities can provide an important service to American democracy: helping to restore Congress’ ability to think clearly. There’s no shortage of options for a university seeking to reverse the Hill’s brain drain.
For example, institutions of higher ed might think about making leading experts available for office hours with legislators and senior staff. Members of Congress need real-time access to objective information, and the Congressional Research Service doesn’t quite have the capacity. In the run-up to decisions like a new infrastructure bill or the response to Russian meddling in the US election, universities could work to make leading professors in fields like public finance or computer science available—in person or via an online platform like Google Hangouts—to tutor Congresspeople and senior staff on the trickier technical aspects of issues under Congressional consideration.
Institutions of higher ed might also think about how to supplement the numerous surface-level briefings offered by policy institutes with partisan or industry agendas with deep dive seminars, whether one-time luncheons or multi-part mini-courses during Congressional recesses, focused on building deeper understanding on matters like US-China relations, antibiotic resistance, or energy trends. Senior staff are responsible for an increasing amount of Congress’ day-to-day operations, and intellectually enrichment, combined with a free lunch, is a powerful draw.
Given staffers’ limited time and lawmakers’ need for deep legislative research, universities should think about how to match relevant faculty experts with offices in need of technical assistance in designing legislation or undertaking. Qualified graduate students can also help in this regard. For example, in lieu of a Hill internship, public health or policy PhD students could team up to write a report to help a Congressional office make sense of a technical healthcare issue or solve a policy problem related to medical research funding. This type of practice could be a win-win: providing the researcher or student with unparalleled opportunity for impact and the member of Congress with customized, high-quality information.
Universities can work to ensure that expert faculty members translate their policy-relevant ideas into the types of media that members of Congress read. This means going beyond the ivory tower and academic journals and instead training and inspiring scholars to publish action-oriented op-eds in popular Hill publications.
Taking these steps can not only improve the speed and effectiveness of policymaking but also reduce the influence of special interests and politically motivated research. Crucially, these ideas don’t have to stop at Capitol Hill. Universities could use similar strategies to improve policymaking in state legislatures and city councils, where even the most basic legislative research support is sometimes nonexistent.
For universities, taking on the role of legislative tutor isn’t just a selfless patriotic act. It could bring benefits like creating new professional opportunities and exposure for faculty and students, opening new long-term research and funding opportunities, and bolstering academic brands in policymaking circles. Yet, given all that universities receive through taxpayer-supported research opportunities and other forms of government funding, this kind of advising represents a meaningful yet affordable way to give back. It’s time for universities to move beyond their traditional lobbying functions toward a new model of intellectual partnership with policymakers. In 2017, university presidents and deans should think about initiating pilot programs to send faculty and top graduate students to DC, state capitals, and city councils to offer workshops, technical assistance, and ideas to policymakers in need of the help.
Bill Foster, the only physicist currently serving in Congress, recently noted that only around 4 percent of federal lawmakers have technical backgrounds. We need more rigorous analytical thinking in government if we are to craft appropriate responses to pressing technical questions from cybersecurity to climate protection to gene editing to nonproliferation. While we can’t expect our legislators to head back to school anytime soon, we can and should bring America’s deeper thinkers to them.