Corrections and an Apology to CRS

02.13.09 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

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.