Secrecy News

Corrections and an Apology to CRS

In a recent news story about the public availability of Congressional Research Service reports (“Thousands of Congressional Reports Now Available Online” by Brian Krebs, Washingtonpost.com, February 11), I was accurately quoted saying: “While 90 percent of the [CRS] reports are probably mediocre, at their best they are very good.”

I wish I had not said that 90% of CRS reports are probably mediocre.  It was disrespectful and condescending.  Besides, I have not read anywhere close to 90% of CRS reports and so I am not in a position to make such a judgment.  In other words, at least 50% of my statement was wrong.  I apologize for that.

I think my intent was to express skepticism about the utility of publishing another archive of CRS reports dating back a decade or more, as Wikileaks.org has recently done, since many of those reports address once-current policy issues that have been overtaken by events.  Such reports generally do not retain their original value over time.

I think I also meant to indicate that even when they are brand new, a large fraction of CRS reports are introductory in character.  Their purpose is primarily to organize and synthesize information that is already in the public domain, not to generate new insights or to provide original analysis or to advance a preferred policy.  But that doesn’t make them mediocre.  Sometimes it makes them especially useful.

Though I know better, I further implied that CRS itself is responsible for its policy of not permitting direct public access to its reports.  This is a tamer version of the recent Wikileaks assertion that CRS deliberately opposes public access so as to enable it to clandestinely influence Congress.  (“Free from meaningful public oversight of its work, the CRS… is able to influence Congressional outcomes, even when its reports contain errors,” according to Wikileaks. “Public oversight would reduce its ability to exercise that influence without criticism.”)  But that does not make sense, both because CRS does not advocate particular policy outcomes and because the majority of CRS reports are already in the public domain and have been available online for years.  It is Congress that prevents CRS from making its reports directly available to the public.  When Congress changes its policy, CRS will undoubtedly comply.

Perhaps the most important work that CRS performs does not find its way into the finished reports for Congress at all.  That is the day to day support that CRS analysts provide to congressional staff, some of whom are young and inexperienced, and many of whom may be overwhelmed by the complexity of the issues they face.  If Congress is ever to achieve its potential as a thoughtful, deliberative and co-equal branch of government, it will need all the help it can get, including the expert assistance of CRS.

0 thoughts on “Corrections and an Apology to CRS

  1. Steve, “mediocre” probably isn’t the right word, but “superficial” would accurately characterize 90 percent (maybe more) of the CRS reports.

  2. This is very gracious of you. But of course you can say that 90% are pedestrian without reading 90% of them. You don’t have to eat the whole ox to know it’s tough.

  3. I would support your 90/10 based on my selected readings. But why should that be a surprise – law reviews are probably 98/2. Even a 10% rate of excellent work is astounding for any publisher, but really surprising for a federal agency. The best one we ever had was OTA, but I am sure that is why it was killed off. Do not let them get you down.:-)

  4. I understand how you feel about what you wrote, but basically you’re right about CRS. They’re useful but introductory, often a nice compiling of available information. They often serve for me as a “good, I haven’t missed anything important” check. The need to be non-partisan often gets translated into “not very analytic.” I appreciate your making them available.

  5. I have no doubt that 90 percent of CRS reports are mediocre. The only problem with your quoted statement was your overly generous use of the word “probably”!

  6. “I think my intent was to express skepticism about the utility of publishing another archive of CRS reports dating back a decade or more, as Wikileaks.org has recently done, since many of those reports address once-current policy issues that have been overtaken by events. Such reports generally do not retain their original value over time.”

    I would respectfully disagree with your above statement. I work daily with reports on these “once-current policy issues” and find them an invaluable background resource for my various projects. The history of the Global War on Terror could not be successfully and accurately documented without these materials.

    Let me also say that the work you do is extremely valuable to historians and the public as a whole. Keep up the great work.

  7. I think that your apology to CRS was appropriate. But the truth is that many CRS products are mediocre. I read tons on them in my years on the Hill. Many are bland, intentionally so. The process at CRS doesn’t get in the way, but the requirement to be balanced shapes a lot of the content.

    Another factor is that CRS products are often the product of a single individual. Some people are smarter and better writers than others. I knew that I didn’t have to read reports written by some individuals because they wouldn’t be worth reading. Other CRS people were always worth reading. Just like other writers. I always read your newsletter, but not others.

    I wrote a column more than ten years ago about making CRS reports public, which they are now effectively. I supported then making them available, and I still do. But there is a price to pay. The reports get blander with more public circulation. CRS has to keep an eye on public reaction lest it become the center of controversy for a particular reports. Would you care to be the author of a CRS report on vaccines and autism? Show a lean in any direction, and you will get killed by someone.

    It isn’t like GAO, where reports go through many hands and reviews before they are issued. (I worked at GAO a million years ago.) Most GAO reports are mediocre and are bland when they should be more pointed because GAO does investigations (with new findings of fact) while CRS does mostly analysis.

    Having said all that, my judgments may be somewhat out of date. I don’t read as much CRS or GAO as I used to.

    Anyway, I wanted to support both your apology and your statement that you were 50% wrong. You were 50% right too. Or some significant percentage. Some reports are great. Some are mediocre.

  8. In the past Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT) took initiatives to make CRS reports more accessible but he did not succeed and then was not re-elected. Who else now might take up that effort?

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