01/27/2012 02:54 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2012

Only a Smarter Congress Can Make Better Internet Policy

This post was written by Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation.

Recent calls for technologists to hire lobbyists to educate Washington on internet issues miss a significant part of the big picture. Congress makes bad technology decisions because it has dismantled its ability to evaluate policy issues. While public mobilization and lobbying efforts can affect decision-making through political pressure, lobbying to educate congress on technology issues is like trying to teach a fish to sing.

The congressional technology lobotomy arose from two fateful decisions. First, Congress closed down its specialized office of nonpartisan technology experts in 1995, which provided a comprehensive view of technology issues. Second, it systematically undermined its remaining staff by spreading them too thin, eroding Congress's ability to dive deeply into an issue.

The Office of Technology Assessment was created in 1972 to equip Congress with "new and effective means for securing competent, unbiased information concerning the physical, biological, economic, social, and political effects" of technology. OTA "was intended to facilitate congressional access to expertise and permit legislators to consider objectively information presented by the executive branch, interest groups, and other stakeholders to controversial policy questions," in the words of a CRS report. It was a runaway success.

OTA's small staff of experts (around 140 at its maximum) generated hundreds of reports at the relatively modest cost of $20 million annually. Unfortunately, it was defunded in 1995 as part of a broader effort to make the Congress appear more efficient. Despite repeated calls for OTA's reinstatement, nothing has filled the void, and policymaking has suffered.

OTA's defunded left staffers for committees and individual members of Congress to shoulder the increasingly complicated burden of evaluating technology issues. They are ill-equipped for the challenge. Over the last 25 years, congressional staff salaries have remained flat, with staff spread thin over a wide range of issues. With an average House staffer in a policy-role earning between $40-60,000, attracting and retaining top talent is virtually impossible. With a 10.4% cut in Congress' budget over a two year period that's taking place now, prompting layoffs and pay freezes, the lifeblood of smart decision-making is being drained away.

Increasing lobbying on technology issues is an easy, but ultimately insufficient, response to this problem. $92 million was spent for lobbyists representing for tv/movie/music issues in 2011, which is the same amount spent by telecom services and equipment companies. This monetary arms race may level the playing field for the well-to-do, but it hasn't created good results. And both sides have good reason to manipulate the law to keep out the next wave of entrepreneurs.

Getting citizens involved will make Congress pay attention, but not every issue is a SOPA, where the internet shuts down in protest. Most issues fly below the radar. Only an empowered, capable Congress can make decisions on the many issues that will never lead to a Google doodle or Wikipedia shut-down.

A smarter Congress requires an investment in its staff, which will save us grief in the long term. Funding for Congress, with all of its supporting agencies, will amount to 1/10 of 1% of federal spending projected for 2012. Current spending on Congress is also roughly the same order of magnitude of what will be spent on all lobbying efforts this year. While lobbyists are necessary for industries like technology and telecommunications to express their views, if we want good policymaking, we need to empower Congress to be able to make good decisions. Restoring funding to OTA and reexamining congressional staff pay is the most effective place to start.

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