Congress Continues To Withhold Congressional Research Service Documents From The Public

from the no-un-spun-insight-for-you,-citizens dept

The Congressional Research Service conducts research for Congress on a multitude of topics. This information is (theoretically) used to guide policy decisions. The research itself is (again, theoretically) valuable, considering it's free of partisan rhetoric and biased conclusions. This lack of bias and rhetoric helps explain the following actions:

First, Congress has again -- for the third year straight -- refused to increase the office's budget. Congress chalks this up to its seldom-seen sense of budgetary restraint.

In the new spending bill, the House Committee ominously rejected a CRS request for a $5 million budget increase in 2016, and allocated $107 million, the same as the 2015 level.

"The Legislative Branch must set itself as an example for fiscal restraint while continuing to serve the Nation. This bill will require strict fiscal discipline on the part of all congressional offices and all agency heads in the Legislative Branch," the report said.
Fiscal restraint is great, but it's always a good idea to take a closer look at the areas Congress decides to apply it. (There aren't many, so it shouldn't take long…) Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists' (FAS) Secrecy News blog notes that Congress doesn't have much use for unbiased research.
[CRS reports are] the kind of in-depth policy analysis that can only be helpful to those whose policy preferences are not predetermined by ideology or affiliation.
Who wants to pay (via taxpayers) for research that doesn't agree with the requester's point of view? Not Congress. So, the CRS will have to make do with the same budget it's had for three years straight. And while it struggles to meet the demands of representatives' requests for research, the CRS will also have to pitch in with the arduous task of answering requests from constituents on behalf of Congress members.
What is often deemed most useful is having CRS analysts assist congressional staff in responding to constituent mail, including eccentric or demented requests for information.
Like this request, which resulted in the CRS losing an analyst.
Why is the US Postal Service "stockpiling ammunition"? That sort of question helped lead CRS analyst Kevin Kosar to leave his job, he explained in an article in the Washington Monthly earlier this year ("Why I Quit the Congressional Research Service," Jan/Feb 2015).
This is where Congress feels CRS's limited resources (that it limited) are best deployed -- not providing clear, factual insight into policy issues.

Now, on to the second point. This research is crafted to guide policymaking -- policies that affect the public. This research, like everything else on Capitol Hill, is paid for with tax dollars. It's essentially public domain material. And yet, Congress continues to instruct the CRS to withhold this research from the public that paid for it.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) will continue to be barred from releasing its reports to the public, the House Appropriations Committee said yesterday in its report on legislative branch appropriations for the coming year.

"The bill contains language which provides that no funds in the Congressional Research Service can be used to publish or prepare material to be issued by the Library of Congress unless approved by the appropriate committees," the House report said.
And so, the research remains locked up. Constituents can request this information from their representatives, but they are under no obligation to produce the documents. The same public that paid for the research once now spends its own money maintaining archives of any CRS reports they manage to acquire. FAS hosts hundreds of liberated reports. Wikileaks has posted nearly 7,000 CRS reports to its archives as well.

The CRS itself is no transparency angel itself. It, too, has opposed legislation aimed at making the reports directly available to the general public. It's been more than a decade since any effort to free these made it to a vote (a resolution was introduced in 2012 but went nowhere), but in an internal memo obtained by FAS, the CRS claimed (among other things) that this would unduly influence the researchers, if not the research itself.
Over time, CRS products might come to be written with a large public audience in mind and could no longer be focused solely on congressional needs.
However, another listed concern seems to indicate the service is OK with allowing Congress members to "translate" its reporting for American citizens.
The danger of placing CRS, a support agency, in an intermediate position responding directly to constituents instead of preserving the direct relationship between constituents and their elected representatives. This threatens the dialog on policy issues between Members and their constituents that was envisioned by the Constitution.
This seems like a legitimate complaint until you realize exactly what's happening here. CRS provides mostly-unbiased research -- something citizens could use to better inform themselves about legislative/world issues. If it allowed these reports out into the wild, Congress members would be unable to twist the findings to fit their own personal agendas or conform with the party line. This "direct relationship" with constituents means molding the data to match the message -- something that's crucial to winning the support of influential figures and cash-heavy contributors. A CRS report out in the open undercuts spin attempts. By not pushing for the release of unbiased research to the general public, the CRS is complicit in allowing politics -- rather than data -- to guide decision-making, while keeping the electorate from being fully informed.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 May 2015 @ 3:33am

    It is true that CRS could be part of the solution to unreasonable partisanship etc.

    When that is said, I can see why they don't want to be in the firing line of politics in the modern media. The amount of assassination attempts from "think tanks" and partisan press and the minitious scrutiny their work would have to suffer would be quite problematic for researchers. I know many researchers are refusing to comment on climate change because people are so emotionally attached to their entrenched positions as to verbally attack the messenger when a more nuanced view is presented.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 20 May 2015 @ 8:27am

      Re:

      Doesn't that happen with virtually everything? It's the usual 'us vs them' view of the world when it should be 'how can we improve things for everybody?' to guide politics.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Joe K, 20 May 2015 @ 11:55pm

      Re:

      [...] I can see why they don't want to be in the firing line of
      politics in the modern media. The amount of assassination attempts
      from "think tanks" and partisan press and the minitious scrutiny their
      work would have to suffer would be quite problematic for researchers.


      Are you being sarcastic? I fear you are being serious.

      Research and scrutiny go together like, um, two things that go
      together really really well.

      Scrutiny improves research. And "research" that is not scrutinised
      might very well not deserve the name.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    jameslenz, 21 May 2015 @ 2:37am

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    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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