Universities Must Help Educate Woefully Uninformed Lawmakers

[Note: This item comes from friend Jen Snow. DLH]

Universities Must Help Educate Woefully Uninformed Lawmakers
Jan 11 2017

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.

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.



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