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Friday, November 10, 2023

Technological Expertise and Congress

Nost public attention on Congress’s struggles to legislate has focused on partisan roadblocks — the increasingly sharp ideological divisions between the two parties and anachronistic procedural hurdles such as the Senate filibuster — that make decisive action a challenge, even during periods of unified party control.

footnote8_o0lnh008 But a related driver of congressional dysfunction is lawmakers’ shrinking access to the high-quality research and data and nonpartisan expertise needed for them to comprehend complex technical issues. In a 2016 survey, 81 percent of senior congressional staffers said that access to high-quality, nonpartisan policy expertise was “very important,” but only 24 percent were “very satisfied” with the resources available.footnote9_ydajgm09

Congress has many in-house subject matter experts. Each member has personal staff, and each committee has staff from each party. Legislators are also assisted by a number of support agencies, including the Library of Congress and the Congressional Research Service (CRS) housed therein, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Congressional Budget Office, and the Government Publishing Office. Yet staff levels in Congress and at its support agencies have atrophied substantially over the past several decades, primarily as a result of cuts Congress has made to its own budget.footnote10_i9mgmtn10

Insufficient access to and absorption of high-quality, nonpartisan science and technology resources have many adverse consequences, including the allocation of billions of dollars in funding for technologies that do not work. These deficiencies also contribute to partisan gridlock because lawmakers increasingly rely on one-sided information from external sources — including those supported, directly and indirectly, by major political donors — making it harder to find common ground about basic facts and metrics for policy solutions.footnote11_4180msp11

Whether dealing with climate change, emerging AI technology, or myriad other complex issues, Congress has a need for science and technology support that continues to grow.footnote12_nbhe49x12 And while lawmakers have often issued broad statutory directives that defer to the expertise of executive branch agencies to fill in the gaps, the Supreme Court has put limits on the policymaking authority of those agencies.footnote13_3u2oaq913 Congress itself will need to legislate with more frequency and greater detail in response to complex problems. It does not have the support it needs to fulfill this responsibility.