By Ralph Nader
Dear Speaker Pelosi,
A critical arm and intellectual infrastructure of Congress – the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) – has been defunded since Speaker Newt Gingrich ordered such, after he toppled the complacent Democrats in November 1994. This left Congress without sound independent advice by some 140 scientists and technologists on a long list of decisions by the Congress to oversee, stop, reduce, or start funding for scientific and technological programs.
Not until 2009-2010, when the Democrats regained control of both Houses, did a broad coalition of scientists, civic advocates, and members of the Congress, led by Democratic Representative Rush Holt (a former Princeton University scientist), urge you as Speaker to revive the OTA. A distinguished number of Nobel laureates, former staff and officials of the OTA, and your Democratic colleagues, sought hearings backed by an impressively documented case for refunding. To no avail. You then opposed public hearings and apparently told aides that you did not want to give the Republicans an opportunity to accuse Democrats of creating another bureaucracy on Capitol Hill. (The OTA’s budget was a parsimonious $21 million in its last year. A bureaucratic OTA is a figment of fevered Republican imagination). It is very alarming that the damage Gingrich did in lobotomizing Congress continues after him. The number of expert congressional overseers has been slashed beyond the bare bones, while the massive Executive Branch to be overseen has grown topsy-turvy and for the worst.
So, another decade was lost. Another vacuum of credible advice by Congress’s own OTA (as has occurred to a lesser extent with the diminished GAO and CRS) enveloped sectors and issues such as artificial intelligence, systemic invasions of privacy, boondoggle, huge ballistic missile defense and nuclear upgrade expenditures, climate disruption, Boeing 737 Max, genetic engineering, citizen surveillance technology, autonomous vehicles, nanotechnology, Covid-19, fracking, computer procurement waste, atomic energy, renewable energy, health care, medical devices, pharmaceuticals, food additives, catastrophic environmental disasters, such as the BP oil spill, occupational safety, the controlling power of corporate algorithms, consumer product hazards, and more.
What filled this vacuum was corporate-driven pseudo-science (see former OSHA director David Michaels’ new book, The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception), which twisted and tortured legislation and appropriations. Business lobbyists thwarted oversight while the number and experience of congressional staff overseers shrank. This is a serious situation now under your watch.
There followed an open sesame for unscrupulous corporations that arrested prudent ways to avert trillions of dollars in waste, perils to the American people and other peoples abroad, inverted perverse priorities, and resulted in bad, dangerous decisions that have ramifications to this day.
You now can move toward action-driven enlightenment despite the Republican control of the Senate. For your House majority can create a unicameral OTA and fund it without the affirmation of the Senate majority wallowing in its Dark Ages. The House OTA can be reconstituted functionally as an arm of the House independent of the Senate. Acting on behalf of the House alone, you cannot be blocked by the Senate as you were in 2019 when the House included $6 million for the bicameral OTA in its House-passed version of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act, 2020 (H.R. 277). As a matter of law, 31 U.S.C. 1105, 1107, and custom, neither the Senate nor the President can interfere with the budget proposed by the House for itself, including the funding of House Committees or House Offices.
You and your colleagues also can make an overwhelming substantive case for funding a House OTA based on scores of audits, investigations, and reports that invite first-class advice, assessment, and testimony from your own public servants. The small technology unit in GAO, while useful for GAO’s culture, is not sufficient. There is a massive backlog of congressionally neglected work to be done. Consider how pathetic the questioning has been by Committee members, already deprived of adequate staff (the Gingrich model), of the Silicon Valley executives once the Congress finally got these imperial bosses to agree to come and testify. Similarly, both Democrats and Republicans have been seriously fact-deprived in their hoopla support for failed attempts at deregulating and boosting the hyped premature autonomous vehicles push by the industry, especially in 2017 and 2018. Worse has been the automatic annual funding by Congress of the mega-billions of dollars for the ballistic missile defense boondoggle, criticized by leading technical experts, without oversight since its inception during the Reagan years.
Corporate lobbyists and installed corporate-indentured officials in the Executive Branch will no doubt oppose such a revived OTA. Its reports will be staples of public congressional hearings. Congressional ignorance makes Congress much easier to ignore. Your iron control of the House of Representatives can make Republican opposition flaccid and evidentially self-serving to their greed and corporatism. Please use your power to address the problems that stem from the absence of OTA and fund it this time.
The undersigned are sending this letter to other members of Congress, numerous scientific and engineering associations, individuals, distinguished academic and non-academic scientists and technologists and, of course, the media.
Please do not prejudge from the last decade. As recent events and civic energy demonstrate, this is a new era with new possibilities once deemed politically difficult in those past years of inertia and self-censorship. Seize the hour!
Two of the undersigned, in their exercise of civic duties, have written you several letters on important matters without ever receiving an acknowledgment, much less a serious response. Is this your established office practice, apart from constituent services for your San Francisco residents? The right of citizens to petition for redress of grievances is enshrined in the First Amendment in furtherance of self-government. Public officials should act accordingly.
Ralph Nader, Esq.
Bruce Fein, Esq.
Claire Nader, Ph.D.
Joan B. Claybrook, Esq.
Louis Fisher, Esq.