How Congress Got Smart on Tech.

AuthorWolfe, Rob


Two years into the pandemic, America faced a siliconcoated crisis. Semiconductors, the electronic components that power computer chips in countless machines essential to everyday life--from laptops and cars to defibrillators and pacemakers--were in short supply, thanks to stress on the global supply chain from COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine. In the summer of 2022, the semiconductor shortage had affected nearly every sector of the U.S. economy. Retail shelves were empty of gaming consoles and other consumer electronics, and auto companies were rolling new cars from assembly lines into fields to wait for new chips to arrive. A global distribution system hollowed out by corporate greed and mismanagement was nearing collapse.

Fixing this sprawling problem fell to Congress, but the task was daunting. Lawmakers in charge of crafting the CHIPS and Science Act needed expert knowledge of technical fields, including microprocessing, manufacturing, distribution, and economic development, as well as high-level guidance on how to navigate complex, interdependent global supply chains and thorny geopolitical relationships. The chips in your personal computer are designed in the U.S., built in Taiwan, assembled in China, and then shipped by companies based in Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, and France. The system is fragile, relying on single sources for some materials--one company in the Netherlands manufactures components essential to many advanced chips--and vulnerable to international conflict. China, for instance, considers itself the rightful owner of Taiwan, and has positioned its military to threaten the island country. Congress, meanwhile, is aging and famously tech illiterate. Chuck Schumer, who leads Senate Democrats, still uses a flip phone, and Senator Lindsey Graham boasts that he has never sent an email. Congress clearly was going to need some help.

Thankfully, three years earlier, in 2019, Congress had created a new office designed to provide lawmakers with precisely what they needed in this case: informed, impartial assessments of sophisticated technological issues. The newly minted office of Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics--hardly a name to make the poets tremble--was at the ready. When Congress began to debate the CHIPS Act, STAA experts compiled more than 70 policy options to address the semiconductor crisis, briefed legislative committees behind the scenes, and later released a report that explained the issue in plain English. The final bill, a $280 billion package meant to shore up American R&D, bring factories back within U.S. borders, train a generation of scientists and engineers, and fix the supply chain problems of a dozen publicly traded companies, ultimately reflected many of the agency's recommendations. The CHIPS and Science Act became law in August 2022; in anticipation of its passage, companies began announcing plans to bring multibillion-dollar semiconductor fabs back to the U.S. The bill's passage marked a signature victory for Congress, and an encouraging sign that it had the capacity to pass sweeping legislation to address complex technical issues.

It also marked yet another victory for the STAA, which has filled a critical void in the legislative branch. For decades, lawmakers have relied on a patchwork of advice from executive branch agencies, academics, lobbyists, and legislative agencies pinch-hitting on subjects they didn't specialize in. The STAA now has 150 full-time employees, including nuclear physicists, engineers, and computer scientists, who can offer guidance on topics including artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency, and fusion energy. In its first four years, the STAA has educated members of Congress and their staff on emerging technology such as virtual reality and 5G broadband; designed interactive web tools that help federal agencies make their services easier and safer to use; and likely saved the government billions of dollars by helping federal defense programs avoid expensive boondoggles based on faulty science. It has also published dozens of in-depth "Technology Assessments," forward-looking reports on emerging fields such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence, helping to alert Congress to challenges looming on the horizon.

In a sea of bleak analyses about the future of the American experiment, the STAA offers a measure of hope, not only for the wonks who care about the federal government's ability to craft smart policy, but for anyone interested in preserving and strengthening our democracy. In the past 30 years, as U.S. lawmakers cut their own budgets, the executive branch has grown in both size and influence. Now, Congress appears at last willing to respond by boosting its own capacity too--and not only through the creation of the STAA. Since 2019, the legislative branch has made steady increases to overall funding for staff, along with other policies--instituting a pay floor, lifting a pay cap--that are meant to recruit and retain experienced personnel. Reversing the brain drain among legislative staff and in its research offices puts Congress in a position to once again act as a coequal branch of government, capable of reining in presidential overreach, clarifying its legislation in the face of activist meddling by the conservative Supreme Court, and restoring citizens' faith in the ability of legislators to govern.

None of this is to say that the STAA is perfect or a panacea to Congress's ailments. It's neither. The office is structured to be less ambitious and independent than many of its...

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