Under-utilization of the Congressional Research Service

Sometimes it amazes how little people (especially those in the media!) utilize the Congressional Research Service when it comes to public policy.

But how many people even know what Congressional Research Service (CRS) is? Under US Code Title 2, Section 166, subsection (d), it is the duty of the CRS to:

”        (1) upon request, to advise and assist any committee of the
    Senate or House of Representatives and any joint committee of
    Congress in the analysis, appraisal, and evaluation of legislative
    proposals within that committee’s jurisdiction, or of
    recommendations submitted to Congress, by the President or any
    executive agency, so as to assist the committee in–
            (A) determining the advisability of enacting such proposals;
            (B) estimating the probable results of such proposals and
        alternatives thereto; and
            (C) evaluating alternative methods for accomplishing those
        results;

    and, by providing such other research and analytical services as the
    committee considers appropriate for these purposes, otherwise to
    assist in furnishing a basis for the proper evaluation and
    determination of legislative proposals and recommendations
    generally; and in the performance of this duty the Service shall
    have authority, when so authorized by a committee and acting as the
    agent of that committee, to request of any department or agency of
    the United States the production of such books, records,
    correspondence, memoranda, papers, and documents as the Service
    considers necessary, and such department or agency of the United
    States shall comply with such request; and further, in the
    performance of this and any other relevant duty, the Service shall
    maintain continuous liaison with all committees;”

In other words, the CRS is Congress’ own think-tank. Now, you would think this role is important, because God knows how ridiculously partisan most think tanks are (and I’m including both the liberal and conservative think-tanks here). The CRS, in my opinion, is probably the most reliable, non-partisan, and neutral source of expertise that Congress can get.

Yet it continues to surprise me that almost no one, and I mean NO ONE, refers, cites, or even mentions in passing CRS when discussing public policy, whether it’s in traditional media or on the blogosphere.

Take, for example, the public discussion surrounding the Administration’s bail-out plan. There are two released reports from CRS on the plan (here and here) on the subject, but yet on all the discussions I’ve read and heard so far, no one has ever even mentioned them. This really blows my mind, because these two reports (that we know of) are requested by Congress: that’s how the CRS works—Congress makes a request, CRS produces reports. So we know for a fact that Congress requested, read, and took these two reports into consideration in the process of creating the Mother of All Bail Outs, and yet no one, and I mean NO ONE, even makes a passing mention of them.

This is ridiculous.

What’s even worse is that CRS reports are not public, even though the public spends about $100 million a year funding it. Instead, reports are released on a ad hoc basis, depending on whether certain members of Congress feel like it or not. Instead, we have to rely on OpenCRS to collect these reports, and no one really knows how many total such reports exist.

It is time that Congress makes CRS open to the public: its exceptional status makes no sense, considering that pretty much every other branch of the Library of Congress has made its information available, either digitally or in person.

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