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Science-Poor Congress Needs More than Google Searches for Tech Legislation

Congress must bolster its own base of scientific and technological expertise to more effectively legislate.

This was originally published by The Hill.

COVID-19 endures as a major public health challenge, with cases rising in a number of states. Our senators and representatives should be able to handle this, yet Congress’s track record is dismal. In early 2022, as yet another variant took hold of the country, Congress failed to pass essential COVID-19 funding. 

There’s a problem here that goes beyond partisanship: Congress is science-poor. The lack of scientific understanding and expertise cramps policymaking, with terrible effects on the country. Congress can fill this gap itself, and it must.

A former Senate staffer described the way members approach science: “[T]hey will resort to Google searches, reading Wikipedia, news articles, and yes, even social media reports. Then they will make a flurry of cold calls and e-mails to whichever expert they can get on the phone.” 

No wonder, then, that Congress’s limitations in science have led to costly mistakes. In 2009, Congress passed legislation about electronic medical records, but technical oversights in legislative drafting hindered cost savings from being realized as a result. And between 2005 and 2011, Congress invested in an ineffective virtual border fence, which was plagued by technical issues. The project was eventually terminated after nearly $ 1 billion had already been spent. 

A major factor in these errors is staffing. Congress lacks staff with the necessary scientific expertise. It has several thousand fewer staffers than it did in the 1980s. Over the past several decades, key congressional support agencies such as the Congressional Research Service and Government Accountability Office have lost nearly a third of their employees. This is significant because Congress relies on these agencies for technical information and expertise as it crafts legislation and considers different policies and solutions. 

In addition, the Office of Technology and Assessment, a support agency that helped Congress understand science, was defunded completely in the 1990s. And committees with jurisdiction over science (such as the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology) saw dramatic staff declines.

But Congress can reverse the decline in its scientific expertise. In our new report for the Brennan Center for Justice, we argue for Congress to establish a hub for science, medicine and technology in order to connect members and their staffs with experts and supply them with the latest, high-quality, nonpartisan studies and data across all disciplines. 

Such a hub could be run by nonpartisan staff with science backgrounds.

It would go a long way in helping Congress grapple with COVID-19 and other pressing science policy issues. Moreover, research shows that sustained relationships between scientists and policymakers, which are built on trust, lead to more evidence-based policymaking. The staff of the new hub would also help an understaffed Congress absorb highly technical information and translate it to members and staff.

Along with the hub, Congress should make other structural changes, such as creating a congressional tech committee, increasing the cap on staffing in personal offices and setting up processes to encourage policymakers to use more data and evidence in crafting policies. These efforts could build on the steps Congress has already taken to address its need for scientific expertise.

Over the past several years, Congress has expanded the GAO’s Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics department, which supports Congress in exploring emerging science and overseeing federal science programs. Between 2019 and 2023, the department’s staff grew from 49 to 157, and there are plans for it to continue to expand. 

In 2019, the House established the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress (which has since become a permanent subcommittee of the House Administration Committee). It has passed many recommendations pertaining to bolstering expertise in Congress, most of which have been either partially or fully implemented. For example, in 2021 the House raised the limit on staff salaries in an effort to retain skilled and expert staff.

But as we face tectonic shifts in technology and science, including the emergence of AI, the challenges of climate change and more, Congress remains behind. 

It still can catch up. It must.