Last year, the Congressional Research Service produced more than 1,000 new reports and more than 2,500 updates of previous reports for the use of Congress, according to the latest CRS annual report. Those figures do not include “approximately 62,000 requests for custom analysis and research” for individual members or Committees.
“For all public policy issues, Congress could rely on the authoritative, objective, timely, and confidential support that CRS offered at each stage of the legislative process,” the CRS annual report said.
In principle, CRS should be able to release all of its general distribution reports to the public, while maintaining the confidentiality of analyses prepared for individual members at their request. This common-sense distinction is observed, for example, by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), CRS’s sister organization, which releases many reports but withholds others.
“CBO makes its work widely available to the Congress and the public by releasing publicly all of its formal cost estimates and analytic reports,” CBO Director Keith Hall said in testimony earlier this month.
“In some circumstances, though, the needs of the Congress lead CBO to keep the results of an analysis confidential,” he said. “Such analyses include informal cost estimates and other types of information produced to assist in the development of legislation.”
But some warn that a similarly straightforward, non-neurotic approach to public release of CRS reports could have unintended negative consequences.
“Most reports are readily available through FAS, but that does not mean that the seemingly minor step of making them publicly available from the get-go won’t change the culture at CRS and how Congress uses CRS,” wrote Winslow Wheeler, a former GAO analyst who later worked with the Project on Government Oversight (which actually favors public distribution of CRS reports).
“Some (many) in Congress will be more encouraged to misuse CRS reports just as they now do GAO reports by manipulating the research question to manipulate the content of the report. That practice is rife at GAO, but not now at CRS,” according to Mr. Wheeler, whose remarks were circulated in an online discussion list in response to a recent New York Times editorial.
“Officially writing for public consumption can also mean that the sometimes technical nature of CRS work will likely be dumbed-down for public consumption…. It could also mean thickening the bureaucracy at CRS if managers there get the notion they are writing for the public, not directly for staff in Congress.”
“The quality of CRS reports, like at GAO, is extremely uneven. Some are excellent; a few are far from it. [Writing for public release] will not likely result in more, better reports,” he contended.
As long as most CRS reports are publicly accessible through alternate, unofficial channels, this question can safely remain open.
Update: Former CRS staffer Bob Lyke suggests in a July 2 letter to the editor of the New York Times that “if reports were generally available, the danger is that they would start to be written for a wider audience, perhaps even unconsciously, not the immediate needs of Congress. The focus and scope might change, and the reports could take longer to write.”