Or, here comes the science!
But first, an example of other ignorance in congress:
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Right now Coleman is looking into the Oil-for-Food program, which was administered by the Security Council in the U.N., mostly by the U.S. and Britain. That didn’t stop Coleman from demanding Kofi Annan’s resignation without any proof of any wrongdoing on his part. There appears to be anywhere from one to two billion dollars stolen through the program – with most of that going to Saddam. Primarily the U.S. and Britain took it upon themselves to make sure that none of this money went toward making W.M.D.s. They seemed to have done a pretty good job.
Meanwhile, the Coalition Provisional Authority, which we ran, has lost 8.8 billion dollars. By lost, I mean it’s totally unaccounted for. Not only has Congress not “looked into” this $8.8 billion and who might have it now, but it seems that some members are completely unaware that this staggering sum, which was supposed to go toward rebuilding Iraq, is missing. The Sunday morning after the White House Correspondents dinner, I ran into Senator George Allen at a brunch thrown by John McLaughlin and his wife. Allen had never heard of the missing $8.8 billion, or at least that’s what he told me. And he’s on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Stunned, I went up to Susan Page of USA Today and her husband Carl Lubsdorf of the Dallas Morning News, two veteran Washington political reporters, and told them about Allen’s ignorance of this huge scandal, which has no doubt contributed to hatred for America and the deaths of our troops. There’s less electricity in Iraq now than there was before we invaded Iraq.
Turns out that Page and Lubsdorf had also never heard of the unaccounted-for $8.8 billion. For a moment I thought that maybe I had been imagining things.
Then I spotted my friend Norm Ornstein, scholar from the American Enterprise Institute. “Would you believe it if Norm Ornstein told you about the $8.8 billion?” I asked Susan and Carl.
I brought Norm over, and indeed I had not been imagining things. “It was a huge story,” Norm told them.
“Was it in the New York Times?” Carl asked Norm.
“Yes,” Norm assured him.
What in God’s name is going on?
Ignorance, and by this time I have to say planned ignorance. The question here is who is controlling the flow of information to the members of congress.
In a previous discussion it was proposed that lobbies have taken over on what congress deems important to be aware of, but for this discussion I want to concentrate on the scientific part of this planned ignorance that began in 1995:
Death by Congressional Ignorance:
How the Congressional Office of Technology AssessmentSmall and Excellentwas Killed in the Frenzy of Government Downsizing
Decision-making is easy if you can ignore the facts and skip the details. Last week the U.S. Congress took a big step toward keeping the pesky facts and details out of its deliberations by closing down its small, but highly acclaimed, Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Both senators from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum, voted for elimination.
Established by the U.S. Congress in 1972 to provide in-depth technical assessments in support of congressional decision-making, OTA has been overseen by the Technology Assessment Board, a bipartisan committee of six senators and six representatives drawn equally from the two parties.
Because of the political environment in which it has operated, OTA reports rarely draw definitive conclusions. Rather, in clear and simple language, supported by attractive illustrations, they summarized the technical facts, identified problems, laid out alternatives, and discussed their pros and cons.
The reports often placed limits on the range of political debate by laying out what was scientifically feasible. Legislators on opposite sides of contentious issues have often cited the same OTA report as a basis for the lines of argument they have advanced.
OTA studies, which typically lasted for a year or two, have been performed by a small professional staff of about 140, over half of whom hold doctorate degrees in a variety of fields that include science, engineering and various areas of social science. In addition, to assure balance and completeness, each study was assisted by an advisory board of outsiders who were selected to represent a wide range of knowledge, perspectives and interests. Topics of OTA studies have ranged widely from nuclear proliferation to pollution control, industrial competitiveness, computer security and privacy, and medical technology.
OTA’s neutrality and success have been widely acclaimed. The liberal Washington Post has characterized the agency as “a dispassionate, nonpartisan player in the legislative process.” The conservative San Diego Union has noted that “the smallest agency on the Hill is the best in terms of efficiency and thoroughness. It is certainly the least political bunch this is real sci, not political sci in the world’s most political town.”
Congress’s Science Agency Prepares to Close Its Doors
During floor debates, the agency’s reports were often quoted by both sides of an issue, supporters say, indicating that the agency was doing its job of supplying factual material to elevate the discussion.
Because the agency tried to be so neutral and because it was insulated from direct contact with most members, proponents say, new committee chairmen and members of Congress brought into power with last year’s Republican takeover had little or no knowledge or appreciation of the agency. Without visibility and champions, an agency can quickly find itself in trouble.
“If you belong to everyone, you belong to no one,” said Dr. John H. Gibbons, head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Dr. Gibbons, who headed the technology office for 14 years before becoming President Clinton’s science adviser in 1993, said the demise of the agency after it had proved its effectiveness reflected an anti-intellectual and anti-science mentality among some members of Congress who were not interested in looking at issues factually.
“Closing our eyes to issues is a very poor way to plan for our future,” Dr. Gibbons said.
Senator Connie Mack, a Florida Republican who helped to lead the effort to kill the agency, and other opponents said its role could be filled by other Congressional fact-finding agencies, like the General Accounting Office, and Congressional Research Service, or private organizations, like the National Academy of Sciences.
But Representative Amo Houghton, a Republican whose New York district includes Elmira, Jamestown and suburban Ithaca, said the information explosion was the problem, not the solution. Mr. Houghton, who would have been chairman of the agency’s board if it had survived, led the effort to save it. Obtaining unbiased information for making decisions has become harder, not easier, he said.
“O.T.A. acts as an impartial ‘honest broker’” Mr. Houghton said. “Members of Congress are deluged with advice from many quarters, but it is often tinged with the underlying bias and political agenda of the bearer.”
From misleading information on WMDs to being taken for a ride on the Schiavo case, there is IMO a dire need to restore the OTA or create a stronger and efficient independent office to clear the BS.
Bring Back the OTA
By The Editors
In this 21st century, science and politics are intertwined to a greater degree than ever before. Global warming poses a long-term challenge with no easy answers. The prospect of terrorism using technology such as dirty bombs and biowarfare looms large on everybody’s radar. Then there is the threat of a bird-flu pandemic, not to mention the issues of embryonic stem cells, energy policy, missile defense, education, voting technologies… The list goes on and on.
More than ever, those elected to govern are in need of timely, high-quality, impartial advice on matters of science and technology. Yet for nearly a decade now, one of the most successful agencies for providing just such advice–the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)–has been defunct. Scrapped in September 1995 to save a paltry $22 million from the $2 billion spent each year on congressional operations, the OTA had produced widely hailed reports on an extraordinarily broad range of topics.
Some argue that Congress has other avenues for obtaining scientific advice, such as the Congressional Research Service. But the service is not equipped to provide the detailed technical analysis that was the hallmark of the OTA. The National Academies, another source for scientific advice, do estimable work, but their reports are more expensive and take longer than the OTA’s did. The recently released study on Internet traffic entitled “Signposts in Cyberspace,” commissioned an appalling seven years ago, is an egregious example.
Although the OTA was killed by conservatives, today both conservatives and liberals support reestablishing it. Indeed, support from fiscal conservatives should be natural; Congress saved hundreds of millions of dollars by following OTA recommendations.
To bring back the OTA and its independent approach, re-fund it. Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey, a former research physicist, is considering introducing a bill to reestablish the OTA. Holt introduced a similar bill in the previous session of Congress, along with co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, but it never returned from committee. This time Congress should pass the bill instead of letting it die.
Do you think the OTA or other agencies are needed to help prevent the gross oversights of today’s congress?