IN its zeal to cut spending, the Republican-led Congress may do in a friend - Congress's own Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). It would be a costly mistake.
OTA is the bipartisan agency that gives both House and Senate in-depth assessments of the science-based and technology-based issues with which the Congress must deal. It makes clear what is technically obscure and untangles what is complex. Its plain-language reports are useful primers for anyone interested in such issues as the prospects for pollution-driven climate warming, the ethical questions raised by genetic engineering, or the social impact of computer-based communications. Without OTA, senators and representatives would be flying blind in trying to find their way through the sci-tech jungle.
OTA's $22 million 1995 budget is a pittance compared with the overall $2.4 billion legislative branch appropriation. But eliminating it could be seen as a symbolic gesture of congressional belt tightening. A foolish symbol. The money saved would likely be overwhelmed by the costs of legislative mistakes because of congressional scientific and technological naivete.
OTA's strength lies in its bipartisanship and its ability to tap the best scientific and technological talent in government, industry, and academia. Its 12-member governing board is evenly balanced between Democrats and Republicans and between members of the House and Senate. It receives its assignments from congressional committees. It doesn't work for individual legislators. That may explain why many do not fully appreciate its work.
OTA does not recommend congressional actions. Its reports explain the science and technology underlying given issues. They explore the questions raised. They lay out possible alternative actions for Congress without highlighting any one of them.
OTA's congressional critics claim this duplicates what other agencies such as the Congressional Research Service in the Library of Congress can do. They're wrong. No other agency draws on the outside expertise that OTA marshals and that helps ensure the studies' objectivity and comprehensiveness.
In spite of this obvious usefulness, OTA's supporters are now fighting for its life. It barely survived in the House last month when a compromise provided a 1996 appropriation of about $15 million. The House also would strip OTA's independence by putting it under the Congressional Research Service. Now it's up to the Senate.
Senators should wake up to the value of what they have in OTA. Trim its funding if need be. But preserve its independence so it can operate effectively. OTA exists to help Congress dig through ''snow jobs'' that lobbyists and administrative agencies try to dump on busy members. Without this adviser, even the savviest senator or representative could become an unwitting victim of the artful ''wool pullers.''