What Lawmakers Should Know

Almost anyone can run for Congress. The qualifications are minimal, as stipulated by the U.S. Constitution: Senators must be at least 30 years old, citizens of the United States for at least nine years and residents of the states from which they are elected. Members of the House of Representatives must be at least 25 years old, citizens for seven years and residents of the states that send them to Congress.

That’s it. You don’t need to own property, as in former times. You don’t need a law degree, even though it might be useful for members of the legislative branch. You don’t need a political science degree; politics itself is more edifying. You don’t need to have served in the armed forces, even though it might be relevant, considering that Congress is empowered to make war and fund the military.

Another thing you don’t need in order to serve in the Senate or House (or the presidency, for that matter) is any knowledge whatsoever of technology.

This was demonstrated recently when the founder of a leading social media network was called to testify before the Senate. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who has been in office since 1976, seemed to have missed out on the telecommunications revolution when he asked how a multibillion-dollar tech company makes its money.

“Senator, we run ads,” came the reply, to the amusement of many citizens of the United States living in the 21st century, and the acute embarrassment of the Senate, some of whose denizens appear to be residing in the 19th.

It was by no means the first time that a senator displayed his ignorance of what is basic information for most Americans. The late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was widely ridiculed for referring to the internet in 2006 as “a series of tubes.”

It is more than a matter of keeping up with current gadgets and appearing “with it” (an expression perhaps belonging more to the last century than the present one) in order to attract the youth vote.

“Congress can’t afford to be stupid about technology,” Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, a progressive advocacy group, told Politico. “The legislation and oversight Congress does on technology, which is a huge part of our economy, affects everything from privacy to national security. And if Congress is going to regulate in the space, it needs to know what it’s doing.”

Without at least rudimentary knowledge of how these things work, such issues as identity theft, artificial intelligence, cybercurrency, gene manipulation, Russian hacking of U.S. political entities, or even Hillary Clinton’s private email scandal, will be unclear to lawmakers. (Apparently, Mrs. Clinton’s justification was that the State Department service was too cumbersome — the same reason Colin Powell, when he was secretary of state, and Mike Pence, when governor of Indiana, used private servers. It doesn’t excuse violating security protocols, but it does illustrate what can happen when the government doesn’t balance security and usability.)

Furthermore, when elected officials are not personally familiar with technology, they must rely on others for their expertise. Too often, those “others” have been lobbyists or federal agencies whose advice may be tainted by special interests.

Embarrassment has its uses. As a consequence of such embarrassing moments, congressional Democrats are calling for a reboot of the Office of Technology Assessment, which used to tutor congresspeople on such matters.

The OTA was deleted from the government in 1995 as part of the bureaucratic downscaling of the Republican “Contract with the American People.” The full-time staff of 143 people and annual budget of $21.9 million was deemed wasteful.

As then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich told Politico in an email recently, “There are many world-class scientists willing to give Congress advice. We found that OTA had become bureaucratic and politicized, so much of its advice was ideological rather than scientific.”

What especially rankled was OTA’s critique of President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense program, which warned of “a significant probability that the first (and presumably only) time the system were used in a real war, it would suffer a catastrophic failure.” The agency also noted that it was impossible to test it beforehand.

Politics aside, the Republicans of ’95 had a good point. A full-fledged separate agency was not necessary. Since 1995, at least some of the functions of the OTA have been carried on by the Government Accountability Office, which established its own technology assessment department.

Instead of adding unnecessarily to bureaucratic sprawl, creating new, never-before-dreamed-of redundancy, it might be wiser to consider augmenting the already-existing resources at the GAO.

The advantages would be many. As an article published by the conservative think-tank R Street Institute noted, the GAO has broader statutory powers than the OTA, which may be helpful in investigating government use of technology; the GAO has had more credibility as an impartial watchdog than OTA had.

R Street also listed certain disadvantages, in particular, its small size compared to OTA, budgeted at only $2.5 million in 2008. But that could be rectified by a bigger budget, though still less than an all-new OTA.

There is much more to lawmaking than technical expertise. The great issues that face the country, even when interfacing with technology, require a broad understanding of such things as truth, justice and fairness, and traits like compassion and integrity.

But that doesn’t mean that elected officials should be allowed to get away with being illiterate — technologically or otherwise.