Secrecy News

CRS: “Not a Happy Place”

The Congressional Research Service, which performs policy research and analysis for Congress, is “not a happy place these days,” said a CRS staffer.

The staffer was referring to the fact that a respected CRS division chief, Morris Davis, had been abruptly fired from his position for publicly expressing some of his private opinions.  (“CRS Fires a Division Chief,” Secrecy News, December 4, 2009).  CRS Director Daniel Mulhollan, the man who fired Mr. Davis (it’s Colonel Davis, actually), evidently believes that CRS employees must have no independent public persona and must not express private opinions in public, even when such opinions are unrelated to their work at CRS, as in Davis’ case.  In short, CRS employees are expected to surrender their First Amendment rights.  Who could be happy with that?

The American Civil Liberties Union has taken up Col. Davis’ cause and in a December 4 letter (pdf), ACLU attorneys Aden Fine and Jameel Jaffer asked the Library of Congress (CRS’ parent organization) to reconsider its position by today, or else risk litigation seeking Davis’ reinstatement.  But it takes a special kind of integrity to admit error and to change course, and that is not the anticipated scenario in this case.

(Update: As expected, the Library of Congress refused to reconsider its position, setting the stage for a lawsuit. See the ACLU news release and the Library response here.)

“In spite of all that, I still believe we do excellent research,” the CRS staffer told Secrecy News.  Yet that research is still not made directly accessible to the public.

In the 2010 Legislative Branch Appropriations Act, Congress once again mandated that “no part of [the CRS budget] may be used to pay any salary or expense” to make CRS research reports available to the public without prior authorization.  This was obviously intended to block direct public access to CRS reports.  But it could also be read more satisfactorily to permit CRS employees to freely distribute CRS reports as long as they incur no additional expense when doing so.

Some notable new CRS reports obtained by Secrecy News include the following (all pdf).

“Privacy: An Overview of Federal Statutes Governing Wiretapping and Electronic Eavesdropping,” updated December 3, 2009.

“U.S. Arms Sales: Agreements with and Deliveries to Major Clients, 2001-2008,” December 2, 2009.

“War in Afghanistan: Strategy, Military Operations, and Issues for Congress,” December 3, 2009.

“The German Economy and U.S.-German Economic Relations,” November 30, 2009.

“Sexual Violence in African Conflicts,” November 25, 2009.

“Traumatic Brain Injury: Care and Treatment of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom Veterans,” November 25, 2009.

“Key Issues in Derivatives Reform,” December 1, 2009.

“U.S. Aerospace Manufacturing: Industry Overview and Prospects,” December 3, 2009.

“High Speed Rail (HSR) in the United States,” December 8, 2009.

0 thoughts on “CRS: “Not a Happy Place”

  1. How bizarre! Louis Fisher has been critical of most administrations for use of force without Congressional authorization, and has filed affidavits, I believe one for FAS, challenging budget secrecy. And he was always identified as a CRS staffer; no one believed that his position undermined his ability to evaluate Constitutional questions.

  2. Louis Fisher is no longer working for Congressional Research Service. For the past several years he has been working at the Library of Congress’ Law Library, which is not part of CRS. His transfer out of CRS after serving for many years as one of the most highly respected analysts on separation of powers was a tragedy, particularly since it happened under during the “unitary executive” Bush presidency. He published an excellent article in Political Science Quarterly called “Deciding on War Against Iraq: Institutional Failures” in which he systematically set forth the catastrophic “institutional failures” on the part of Congress when they collectively abdicated their Article I war making responsibilities by voting to let the President make the call on whether to make war on Iraq. Is there a connection between his transfer out of CRS and this hard-hitting yet completely bipartisan drubbing of Congress? Perhaps there exists another institutional failure on the part of Congress in asking CRS to give it the unvarnished truth when the truth might occasionally include those that are not flattering to Congress (who pays our salaries). It’s awkward.

    Nevertheless, CRS is an excessively miserable place to work. The irony here is that CRS analysts are expected to advise Congress on how to engage in representative democracy, and yet CRS management repeatedly rebuffs the ideas and suggestions of these same analysts, and seems not to believe that anything like consultative management (we had it briefly during the Clinton administration, but it has been almost entirely abandoned in favor of the total top-down style of management), much less representative democracy, could work in a community of a couple hundred scholars, librarians and support staff.

    The Director has near-absolute power. He is appointed by the Librarian of Congress, who is appointed by the president (the current Librarian was appointed by Reagan) to an indefinite term. The result is that there is no institutional counterweight to his authority. Unlike executive branch agencies that change hands every four or eight years, the head of CRS is Director for Life. The only institution that has any oversight with respect to CRS is Congress.

    And yet, with the ability to rule practically unchecked, CRS as an institution treats its staff – from the most revered, “Hill hands” to its nonprofessional support staff, in a peremptory, threatening, and occasionally sadistic manner. Everything in the ACLU press release rings true, especially the repeated “five o’clock” emails and abrupt and intimidating manner of delivery.

    The work environment is paranoia inducing, with mixed messages, double-binds and perverse incentives abounding. CRS spends thousands of dollars recruiting promising young scholars from prestigious institutions (with almost no promotions from within and very little training or detail opportunities available), whom they promptly muzzle upon hiring them and proceed to micromanage until they leave after a few years or die young or retire on disability due to some stress-related condition (unless they fire you first for taking too much sick leave.)

    And yet, as the anonymous staffer said in the article above, CRS employees manage to crank out excellent work. But it’s a horrible environment. I can’t think of a SINGLE person who is happy there right now. It’s a great institution with a hallowed mission that we all take very seriously. It breaks my heart to see what it has become.

  3. Re – The availability of CRS Reports

    Anybody can get any CRS report they want. There is no plot to keep them away from the public. All you have to do is contact your representative and ask someone from their office to get it for you. You don’t even have to have a title. You could just ask for all the CRS reports on Medicare fraud or whatever, and your congressperson or senator’s office will order it from CRS and send it to you. It’s not a big conspiracy or anything.

    I suspect that the reason the law was written this way originally was because of allocation of resources. Now that anybody can download anything themselves off the internet, I think the policy should be revisited. Better still – charge a small fee for copies so that CRS can pay for itself in some small way while at the same time fostering a better informed public. CRS is still viewed as an honest broker in most parts. Maybe wider access to unbiased, systematic, unsexy analysis could have prevented some of the “death panel” hysteria from happening during the health care town hall meetings.

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