The New York Times reported last week that the Congressional Research Service had withdrawn a report that found no correlation between reduced tax rates and increased economic growth after some Republican Senators took exception to it. (“Nonpartisan Tax Report Withdrawn After G.O.P. Protest” by Jonathan Weisman, November 1.)
But “withdrawn” here means withdrawn from the internal congressional website. CRS could not withdraw the report from public circulation because it never made the report publicly available. In fact, as things stand, the “withdrawn” CRS report is now more widely accessible than the large majority of other CRS products. Not only did the New York Times post it online, it is available on the congressional website of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, as well as through FAS and elsewhere.
But neither congressional Republicans who were angered by the report nor Democrats who were offended by its withdrawal have seen fit to provide public access online to thousands of other CRS reports, which are effectively suppressed without being withdrawn. (A House resolution earlier this year to alter that anachronistic policy has not gone anywhere.)
One possible argument against public disclosure is that the CRS report on tax rates and growth would almost certainly have escaped criticism if it had not been introduced into broad public discourse by a previous New York Times article in September. Once people began talking about it, it could not be ignored by interested members of Congress. But that is an argument for CRS irrelevance, not for non-disclosure.
CRS often does fine work, but it is not above error or beyond criticism. Republicans, Democrats and anyone else are all well within their rights to dispute CRS reports on factual, methodological or even ideological grounds. Why wouldn’t they be?
Ideally, the proper response from CRS would not have been to withdraw the report, but to engage the critics. If those critics have valid points, CRS should revise the report accordingly. If the objections are not valid, let CRS explain why. This shouldn’t be complicated. And yet somehow it is. Once a congressional agency becomes the target of partisan attacks, it can be crippled and then destroyed, as was the case with the still-lamented Office of Technology Assessment, which was terminated by the new Republican majority in 1995. (“Congress surely doesn’t need [a research organization such as CRS] that acts like an arm of the Democratic Party,” the Wall Street Journal editorialized ominously and unfairly on Friday in response to the latest controversy.)
According to the Times story last week, “Congressional aides and outside economists said they were not aware of previous efforts to discredit a study from the research service.” But actually there have been a number of such efforts in which the motives or competence of CRS analysts were impugned by Members who disagreed with their conclusions.
“CRS completely ignored the most basic principles of statutory interpretation,” complained Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) in an angry 2006 letter to the CRS director criticizing certain CRS intelligence studies. He said CRS had produced “a flawed and obviously incomplete analysis…. ” The CRS perspective was defended at that time by Rep. Jane Harman, and the studies in question were not rescinded. (See “Mau-Mauing the Congressional Research Service,” Secrecy News, February 4, 2006.) A 1993 CRS report on Iraq’s Nuclear Achievements was one of a number of reports that have been withdrawn from official circulation for various reasons.
Update: The “withdrawn” CRS report was reissued in a somewhat revised form on December 12, 2012 and may be found here.