Newt to Blame for the Obamacare Website (?) and the Closing of the Office of Technology Assessment

One of my standard phrases since I came to Pennsylvania in December 1995 to launch Keystone Research Center is that "Newt Gingrich eliminated my old job and created my new job."

This phrase came to mind a few days ago when Mark Price sent me a Mother Jones story suggesting that the former House Speaker shares culpability for the screw ups of the AHCA website because he helped eliminate the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1995. For the two decades prior, OTA provided Congress with independent expertise on technology issues. Had OTA not closed, Mother Jones suggests, the agency might have ensured more functional federal policies guiding computerized medical records and the broader integration of technololgy into the health care sector. This path would have made the current website fiasco unlikely.

This is an intruiging, albeit non-verifiable, argument. What is verifiable is that I used to work at OTA. So, thanks to Gingrich, I lost my job.

The realpolitik view in OTA at the time was that the agency was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Gingrich crowd wanted to streamline the federal government, even talking about eliminating the federal Departments of Education and Commerce. The Congress needed to show its own willingness to streamline. It did this eliminating a couple of Congressional committees and the smallest Congressional research agency, OTA.

There was also a sense at OTA that the mission of the agency, analyzing the social and environmental implications of technology, was suspect. As our Republican Director Roger Herdman said at the time said, we had "PBS syndrome." Also, Gingrich already had all the answers so what did he need us for?

OTA's closing did seem a loss, for the nation as well as for me. The culture of the organization was to speak truth to power, a spirit embodied for me by my colleague and co-author John Alic, a rail-thin engineer-turned-policy analyst and (I learned much later) amateur race-car driver. John didn't give a rat's ass what anybody wanted to hear and was going to tell them the truth, as best as he could figure it out.

I had the privilege of working for John on a study he directed of the potential impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Released in September 1992, U.S.-Mexico Trade: Pulling Together or Pulling Apart? appeared to inform some of the framing of candidate and President Clinton's statements on NAFTA. But our study didn't make the substantive sale that different NAFTA -- a modified trade ageement plus meaningful labor, environmental, infrastructure bank and other provisions -- could be used to manage the accelerating, and so-far unmanaged, economic integration so that people in both countries would actually benefit. Our failure was the nation's loss as well as President Clinton's, politically. In November 1994. NAFTA's passage contributed to a mass disaffection of working-class voters from the Democratic Party, ushering in...the Gingrich Congress.

How did Gingrich create my new job? The watershed 1994 election, in this state and nationally, alerted a dozen labor unions to the need for a progressive Pennsylvania economic think tank. They hired me as director. We've been trying ever since to figure out how to restore an economy that works for all.

More challenging, we've also been trying to figure out how to sell our proposed policies to policymakers. (Meet the new job, same as the old job.)

What's that they say in baseball? Wait 'til next year?


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