Magazine Article - Politico Magazine

How A Divided Congress Could Unite Around Tech

| Dec. 06, 2018

Beyond tougher oversight hearings, somber observers expect so little from our newly divided Congress that we all ought to be on the lookout for nonpartisan opportunities.

There is one important area where members could defy partisan gridlock to help Washington better meet a critical challenge of 21st century governance: assessing the public impact of today’s disruptive technologies.

I have firsthand experience with a model that worked. It’s one that could work again for members and their staffs, who understandably struggle to grapple with the sheer complexity of today’s highly disruptive and socially consequential technologies.

That struggle was on painful display during the hearings about Facebook earlier this year. Members seemed unbriefed on even rudimentary issues—“[H]ow do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” one senator asked—while Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg seemed not to understand the gravity of his company’s public responsibilities. This was a gridlock of understanding, not partisanship, and it meant a historic opportunity was missed.

Imagine a different outcome where several options mixing self-regulation by companies like Facebook and informed regulation by federal and state governments were analyzed, debated and prepared for a vote. Imagine, too, that such bipartisan insight came directly from a body under congressional control, rather than lobbying firms, advocacy groups and think tanks, which often peddle tendentious recommendations.

It shouldn’t require a huge stretch of imagination because the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which helped members understand the scientific and technological dimensions of policy options, was a reality in Washington for decades.

I know, because it’s where I had my first sample of public service. In 1980, I was a physicist doing postdoctoral research. I had no policy background or experience, but senior nuclear physicists of the Manhattan Project era asked me to go to Washington for one year to offer OTA technical analysis on a burning issue of the time: how to keep the Soviets from tracking and destroying the new American MX 10-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile.

Shortly after I joined OTA, the election ushered in a Republican Senate and White House and a Democratic House. OTA’s patrons were Alaska Republican Ted Stevens and Arizona Democrat Mo Udall, each a pillar of his respective party, but also able to work across the aisle for public good. These congressional leaders insisted first and foremost that differing political values could nonetheless draw from a shared basis of information—no easy feat considering how dramatically the political winds had shifted from the Carter to the Reagan administration.

To thwart Soviet intelligence, the outgoing Carter administration had proposed hiding 200 MX missiles among 4,600 holes dug into the Great Basin area of Nevada and Utah. As the study got underway, Ronald Reagan was elected. The Reagan administration was skeptical of this Rube Goldberg scheme, which had been widely derided by the public. The president ordered his new defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, to look at options. Congress sought to scratch the same itch for technical alternatives for itself.

So I joined a small group of extremely capable physicists to look at the options. We looked at moving the missiles around on trains, on ships, on planes, on new kinds of submarines, shooting down incoming Soviet warheads with missile defenses and burying the MX deep underground where it couldn’t be destroyed. We respectfully reviewed options prepared from every quarter, even fringe. At one point, I worked with the makers of the Goodyear Blimp on the design of giant airships floating randomly over the United States so that they couldn’t be targeted by the Soviets—surely a crowd pleaser!

The point is that we were an expert staff that provided purely technical analysis. We looked at options, not answers. Other teams worked on a broad range of issues, including telecommunications, health and safety, agriculture and manufacturing. Though scientifically independent, OTA was no rogue agency. It worked directly for, and was supervised by, a bipartisan and bicameral group of senators and members; OTA was truly congressional.

In addition to doing our own analysis, we made sure to engage every project stakeholder: officials from both the Carter and Reagan administrations; congressional members and staffers from both parties; the Air Force, which was building the MX; governors; defense industry leaders; lobbyists and advocacy groups of all stripes, think tanks; scientists and government labs; and Cold War hawks and doves. To be sure we didn’t stray from our mission, we also reported regularly to an external advisory group of retired military and intelligence officials, business and technology leaders and emissaries from the states of Nevada and Utah.

The result was a comprehensive and timely pro-con analysis of all the options. Our report provided essential input to the legislative process without taking a position on any of these options. With this foundation, members could do what they do best: use their broad experience to do what was in the interest of the people who elected them. In our case, Congress decided to abandon the Carter administration’s scheme and encouraged the Pentagon to consider some of our alternatives.

Doing impactful technical work opened a new world for me, and after the MX study I left OTA to work in Weinberger’s office, the first in a string of Pentagon jobs that ended 35 years later as secretary of Defense.

Sadly, OTA was abolished as part of the revolution to downsize government in the 1990s. And some noble attempts to revive it in recent years have fallen flat. Yet the need for a credible body supplying both parties in Congress with world-class technical know-how has never been greater. I am trying to fill some of OTA’s important work through a university research project called Technology and Public Purpose. But Congress needs its own body to serve its priorities exclusively.

The dilemmas posed by today’s disruptive technological change won’t resolve themselves. From social media platforms like Facebook to artificial intelligence, big data, cybersecurity and quantum computing, the digital revolution desperately needs clear-eyed policy safeguards. An even bigger biotech revolution is coming, involving gene typing and editing, designer cells, bioterror, as well as new cures for stubborn diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s. Members would surely appreciate some help as they grapple with all this change on behalf of their constituents. They also need creative options to ensure that the millions of American workers likely to be displaced by emerging technologies can get the training they need to find good new types of jobs. We simply can’t have a cohesive society if Americans don’t see a place for themselves in technology’s future.

My experience of long ago with the Office of Technology Assessment is a model that worked for politically divided times just like ours. In the early 1980s, the dire threat of a nuclear holocaust posed by the Soviet Union made it irresponsible to put party above public purpose. Now, at a time when all Americans are deeply affected by today’s disruptive innovations, there is a new chance for nonpartisanship in managing our many tech dilemmas. Congress must reinvigorate its technical grasp. Reviving OTA is a proven way to do this, while showing the country that all scope for moving forward is not lost. Politics may be gridlocked. But problem-solving need not be.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Carter, Ash. “How A Divided Congress Could Unite Around Tech.” Politico Magazine, December 6, 2018.