Criminal Justice Reform, and More from CRS

“The number of people incarcerated in the United States has increased dramatically over the past three decades,” a new report from the Congressional Research Service observes, from around 419,000 inmates in 1983 to about 1.5 million inmates in 2013.

“The incarceration rate increased from 179 per 100,000 people in 1983 to 478 per 100,000 in 2013,” generating mounting concerns about the economic, social and other consequences of the criminal justice system.

At this point, CRS says, “incarceration has probably reached the point of diminishing returns.”

The new CRS report looks at approaches to reducing the imprisoned population. “Because courts and correctional officials make decisions about who can safely be diverted from incarceration or granted early release, they may benefit from tools that can help in this process. Actuarial risk assessment tools may serve this purpose. Needs assessments could also help correctional officials make determinations about which offenders need higher levels of supervision and/or rehabilitative programming.”

A copy of the report was obtained by Secrecy News. See Risk and Needs Assessment in the Criminal Justice System, June 22, 2015.

Other new reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Procedures for Congressional Action in Relation to a Nuclear Agreement with Iran: In Brief, June 23, 2015

Greenhouse Gas Pledges by Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, June 29, 2015

U.S. Capital Markets and International Accounting Standards: GAAP Versus IFRS, June 25, 2015

Sex Trafficking: An Overview of Federal Criminal Law, June 25, 2015

Appointment and Confirmation of Executive Branch Leadership: An Overview, June 22, 2015

Judiciary Appropriations FY2016, June 18, 2015

Last year, CRS introduced a new product line called CRS Insights, which offers short takes on topics of current news or policy interest, typically with links to more substantive analyses by CRS and others. CRS Insights are provided to Congress “in response to client feedback asking for shorter, more succinct products that are published quickly in response to fast-moving public policy issues.”

Some of the latest examples include the following.

Economic Crisis in Greece, CRS Insights, June 29, 2015

Hong Kong’s Legislative Council Votes Down Chief Executive Election Reform, CRS Insights, June 22, 2015

Vietnam’s Communist Party Chief to Make Historic First Visit to Washington, CRS Insights, June 19, 2015

Protecting Civil Aviation from Cyberattacks, CRS Insights, June 18, 2015

South Carolina Church Shooting and Hate Crime in the United States, CRS Insights, June 18, 2015

France: Efforts to Counter Islamist Terrorism and Radicalization, CRS Insights, June 29, 2015

Sifting Domestic Terrorism from Other Illegal Activity, CRS Insights, June 24, 2015

Contrasting Views on Public Release of CRS Reports

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 cautions warns 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.”

Public Mass Shooting a Persistent Threat (CRS)

Mass killings of the sort that took place yesterday in Charleston, South Carolina are a distressingly frequent occurrence. There were 78 public mass shootings in the United States between 1983 and 2013, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.

“According to CRS estimates, over the last three decades public mass shootings have claimed 547 lives and led to an additional 476 injured victims,” the report said.

Of course, gun violence in America is much more common than mass killings. “While tragic and shocking, public mass shootings account for few of the murders or non-negligent homicides related to firearms that occur annually in the United States.” In 2011 alone, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, firearms were used to murder 8,583 people.

Nevertheless, despite these grim statistics, “over the last two decades, the nation has experienced a general decline in violent crime,” the CRS report said. “In 1992, 1.9 million violent crimes were reported, while 2011 saw 1.2 million. In the same period, the national murder rate dropped from 9.3 to 4.7 per 100,000 inhabitants.” See Public Mass Shootings in the United States: Selected Implications for Federal Public Health and Safety Policy, March 18, 2013.

New reports from the Congressional Research Service on other topics include the following.

Cybersecurity Issues for the Bulk Power System, June 10, 2015

Overview of Health Insurance Exchanges, June 10, 2015

The Addition of Trainers to Iraq: Background for Congress, June 16, 2015

Ending Cash Flow Financing to Egypt: Issues for Congress, June 4, 2015

Public Access to CRS Reports, Revisited

“Congressional Research Belongs to the Public,” declared a New York Times editorial today, and it is “absurd” that Congress would place any obstacles in the way of public access to Congressional Research Service reports, which provide impartial analyses of current policy issues.

Yet such obstacles continue to exist, and most CRS reports are not publicly disclosed by Congress.

A measure to require the online publication of non-confidential CRS products (H.Res. 34) was introduced in the House of Representatives last January by Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ) and Rep. Martin Quigley (D-IL). But like several prior initiatives along the same lines, there is no sign thus far that their pending measure will advance into law or policy.

For the time being, at least, it is easier to circumvent congressional restrictions on distribution of CRS reports than it is to modify those restrictions.

Noteworthy new and updated CRS reports obtained by Secrecy News include the following.

Cybersecurity and Information Sharing: Comparison of Legislative Proposals in the 114th Congress, June 12, 2015

Chinese Land Reclamation in the South China Sea: Implications and Policy Options, June 16, 2015

Prospects for Democracy in Hong Kong: The 2017 Election Reforms, June 9, 2015

China’s Economic Rise: History, Trends, Challenges, and Implications for the United States, updated June 14, 2015

Turkey After June 2015 Elections: Erdogan and the AKP Fall Short, CRS Insights, June 16, 2015

Financing the U.S. Trade Deficit, updated June 11, 2015

Regular Vetoes and Pocket Vetoes: An Overview, updated June 9, 2015

Cuba: Issues for the 114th Congress, updated June 12, 2015

Fact Sheet: Selected Highlights of the FY2016 Defense Appropriations Bills (H.R. 2685 and S. 1558), June 16, 2015

War Funding and the Budget Control Act: In Brief, June 11, 2015

Train and Equip Program for Syria: Authorities, Funding, and Issues for Congress, updated June 9, 2015

U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel, updated June 10, 2015

Navy Ford (CVN-78) Class Aircraft Carrier Program: Background and Issues for Congress, updated June 12, 2015

Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS)/Frigate Program: Background and Issues for Congress, updated June 12, 2015

Intelligence Authorization Legislation for FY2016: Selected Provisions, CRS Insights, June 15, 2015

Invasive Species: Issues in Brief, May 22, 2015

Not everyone values the kind of policy analysis that CRS performs, particularly since CRS reports are even-handed to a fault, and they refrain from advocacy of specific outcomes. As such, they do not immediately advance any particular policy agenda.

In fact, the Congressional Research Service may be an institution in jeopardy. CRS “has lost about one-fifth of its staff since 1993,” according to the Center for American Progress. “The House and Senate legislative branch appropriations bills both cut CRS funding by 14.2 percent from its FY 2010 inflation-adjusted level.” See “Congress Makes Itself Dysfunctional with Legislative Branch Cuts” by Harry Stein and Ethan Gurwitz, June 15.

At the same time, and despite official congressional strictures on publication, CRS is playing an increasingly prominent role in informing the public on a wide range of policy issues. CRS reports are cited numerous times each day in national news stories– which often link to the reports on the Federation of American Scientists website or those of other non-congressional publishers.

Reform of Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), and More from CRS

New and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Stored Communications Act: Reform of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), May 19, 2015

United Nations Reform: Background and Issues for Congress, updated May 15, 2015

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Functions and Funding, May 15, 2015

In-Country Refugee Processing: In Brief, May 7, 2015

Coast Guard Cutter Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress, updated June 2, 2015

Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress, updated June 1, 2015

State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs: FY2016 Budget and Appropriations, updated May 13, 2015

Burundi’s Electoral Crisis: In Brief, May 14, 2015

Nuclear Weapons Policy, and More from CRS

New and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service on nuclear weapons policy and other issues of topical interest include the following.

Russian Compliance with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty: Background and Issues for Congress, updated June 2, 2015 (See also the 2015 State Department compliance report released June 5, and reported in the New York Times on June 6.)

Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty: Background and Current Developments, updated June 2, 2015

Arms Control and Nonproliferation: A Catalog of Treaties and Agreements, updated May 11, 2015

Iran-North Korea-Syria Ballistic Missile and Nuclear Cooperation, updated May 11, 2015

Energy and Water Development: FY2016 Appropriations for Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Stewardship, May 6, 2015

U.S.-China Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, updated June 4, 2015

Navy Irregular Warfare and Counterterrorism Operations: Background and Issues for Congress, updated June 1, 2015 (and see, relatedly, the profile of SEAL Team 6 in the New York Times on June 6)

Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress, updated June 2, 2015

Navy Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Program: Background and Issues for Congress, updated June 1, 2015

Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress, updated June 2, 2015

Navy Shipboard Lasers for Surface, Air, and Missile Defense: Background and Issues for Congress, updated June 1, 2015

Senate to Mull Potential Endgame for GuantanamoCRS Legal Sidebar, June 5, 2015 (and see also The Senate’s Guantanamo Bill: A Wolf in Sheep’s ClothingJust Security, June 8)

Fact Sheet: Selected Highlights of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 1735 and S. 1376), June 3, 2015

A Shift in the International Security Environment: Potential Implications for Defense–Issues for Congress, updated June 1, 2015

The 2015 National Security Strategy: Authorities, Changes, Issues for Congress, May 11, 2015

Israel: Background and U.S. Relations, updated June 1, 2015

Honduras: Background and U.S. Relations, updated May 20, 2015

Maritime Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress, updated June 1, 2015

China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities — Background and Issues for Congress, updated June 1, 2015

Supreme Court Ruling Affects the Future of Whistleblower Suits Against Government ContractorsCRS Legal Sidebar, June 5, 2015

Congressional Action on FY2016 Appropriations Measures, June 5, 2015

Supreme Court Issues Rare Unanimous Opinion in Religious Freedom CaseCRS Legal Sidebar, June 4, 2015

Reported Office of Congressional Ethics Investigation Highlights Range of Ethics Considerations Surrounding Foreign Gifts Under Congressional RulesCRS Legal Sidebar, June 4, 2015

NFL Gives Up its Tax-Exempt StatusCRS Legal Sidebar, June 4, 2015

FY2016 NDAA: A Comparison of House and Senate Provisions for Military Retirement ReformCRS Insights, June 4, 2015

Reform of U.S. International Taxation: Alternatives, updated June 3, 2015

The Budget Reconciliation Process: Stages of Consideration, June 2, 2015

Federal Securities Law: Insider Trading, updated June 1, 2015

U.S. Trade Deficit and the Impact of Changing Oil Prices, updated June 1, 2015

USA FREEDOM Act Reinstates Expired USA PATRIOT Act Provisions but Limits Bulk CollectionCRS Legal Sidebar, June 4, 2015

The Federal Grand Jury, and More from CRS

A Congressional Research Service report on The Federal Grand Jury, May 7, 2015, presents “a brief general description of the federal grand jury, with particular emphasis on its more controversial aspects–relationship of the prosecutor and the grand jury, the rights of grand jury witnesses, grand jury secrecy, and rights of targets of a grand jury investigation.”

In Brief: Options to Help Meet a Congressional Requirement for Nuclear Weapon “Pit” Production, May 22, 2015, describes sixteen options for increasing the production of plutonium pits for thermonuclear weapons.

A CRS report on Wartime Detention Provisions in Recent Defense Authorization Legislation was updated on May 28, 2015 to include discussion of the pending FY2016 defense authorization bills.

Overview of Constitutional Challenges to NSA Collection Activities, May 21, 2015, presents an updated survey of recent litigation on the constitutionality of U.S. intelligence surveillance programs.

U.S. Trade with Free Trade Agreement (FTA) Partners, May 21, 2015, examines the economic impacts of free trade agreements.

An Overview of the Employment-Population Ratio, May 27, 2015, considers the significance of the proportion of the population that is employed at any given time.

Former Presidents: Pensions, Office Allowances, and Other Federal Benefits, May 27, 2015, has been updated to reflect legislation that was recently introduced to place limits on such pensions.

Some other recent CRS products obtained by Secrecy News include the following.

Rules and Practices Governing Consideration of Revenue Legislation in the House and Senate, May 26, 2015

The Violence Against Women Act: Overview, Legislation, and Federal Funding, updated May 26, 2015

The “Islamic State” Crisis and U.S. Policy, updated May 27, 2015

Trade Promotion Authority: Frequently Asked Questions, updated May 27, 2015

Foreign Holdings of Federal Debt, updated May 28, 2015

Earmark Disclosure Rules in the House: Member and Committee Requirements, updated May 21, 2015

Earmark Disclosure Rules in the Senate: Member and Committee Requirements, updated May 21, 2015

Tracking Federal Funds, and More from CRS

“Finding data on federal grants and contracts awarded to states and congressional districts, local governments, nonprofit organizations, contractors, and other eligible entities may present challenges,” a new report from the Congressional Research Service observes.

The various tools that are available to help meet those challenges are cataloged and described by CRS in Tracking Federal Funds: USAspending.gov and Other Data Sources, May 13, 2015.

Other noteworthy new and updated CRS reports include the following.

Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza: Ongoing Outbreak, CRS Insights, May 19, 2015

Selected Issues in Homeland Security Policy for the 114th Congress, May 19, 2015

Congressional Primer on Responding to Major Disasters and Emergencies, updated May 19, 2015

Deployable Federal Assets Supporting Domestic Disaster Response Operations: Summary and Considerations for Congress, updated May 13, 2015

Critical Infrastructures: Background, Policy and Implementation, updated May 12, 2015

Human-Induced Earthquakes from Deep-Well Injection: A Brief Overview, updated May 12, 2015

Candidates, Groups, and the Campaign Finance Environment, CRS Insights, May 19, 2015

Uncertainty in Financial Projections of Social Security, CRS Insights, May 14, 2015

Freedom of Navigation and Territorial Seas, CRS Legal Sidebar, May 18, 2015

Iran, Gulf Security, and U.S. Policy, updated May 19, 2015

Perspectives on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) “Torture Report” and Enhanced Interrogation Techniques: In Brief, updated May 14, 2015

Government Collection of Private Information: Background and Issues Related to the USA PATRIOT Act Reauthorization in Brief, May 19, 2015

Sunset of Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, memorandum for the House Judiciary Committee, May 19, 2015

 

Average U.S. Troop Cost Nearly Doubled Since 1980

The average cost to the U.S. defense budget per individual troop member has increased sharply over the past few decades, a new analysis from the Congressional Research Service found, reflecting changes in the size and structure of the U.S. military.

“Since FY1980, the cost per troop–for all expenses ranging from pay to procurement–has almost doubled in real terms from $200,000 per troop in FY1980 to $390,000 per troop in [the] FY2016 request,” the CRS report noted.

The rising average troop cost figures were presented as part of a larger CRS analysis of Defense Spending and the Budget Control Act Limits, dated May 19, 2015.

Another new CRS report considers 16 alternate scenarios under which it might be possible for the U.S. to produce 80 plutonium “pits” for nuclear weapons each year by 2027, as mandated by Congress. See Nuclear Weapon ‘Pit’ Production: Options to Help Meet a Congressional Requirement, May 14, 2015.

Yet another new CRS report discusses the history and status of U.S. relations with Pakistan, including key points of contention and cooperation. See Pakistan-U.S. Relations: Issues for the 114th Congress, May 14, 2015.

House Renews Ban on CRS Publication of Its Reports

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.

Because Congress prohibits CRS from publishing its own reports, most CRS reports are only available to the public from non-governmental organizations that take the initiative to gather and publish them. Many such reports can be found in a collection that is maintained and regularly updated on the Federation of American Scientists website.

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.

But from another perspective, “this bill falls short in providing Congress with the resources needed to fulfill its constitutional duties,” said Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Nita M. Lowey in minority views. “The Legislative Branch bill provides another year of flat funding, the third in a row.”

In a move that is perhaps even more worrisome for CRS, “The Committee directs the Library of Congress to commission an independent survey of all Members and committees of the House of Representatives to ascertain their fundamental and optimal requirements for services and support from the Library of Congress and especially the Congressional Research Service.”

The problem here is that the CRS services that congressional offices are likely to find most “useful” are not necessarily those that are most “valuable.”

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.

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).

What is most valuable, by contrast, is not necessarily of immediate use to individual Members and Committees. That is the kind of in-depth policy analysis that can only be helpful to those whose policy preferences are not predetermined by ideology or affiliation. CRS reports are now cited ever more frequently by reporters and others trying to come to grips with complicated policy issues that entail both costs and benefits.

This particular policy analysis function, however, may not be considered a “fundamental and optimal requirement” by every member of the House.

“Even when we did find time and space to do serious research, lawmakers ignored our work or trashed us if our findings ran contrary to their beliefs,” wrote former CRS analyst Kosar.