At CRS, Confidentiality is an End in Itself

10.26.15 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The ability of Congressional Research Service analysts to support congressional deliberations is substantially enabled by (if not entirely predicated on) the confidentiality with which requests from individual Members of Congress and the CRS responses to those requests are handled.

Confidentiality permits congressional offices to consider politically sensitive or unpopular topics, and to evaluate new perspectives dispassionately without being prematurely locked into an ideologically-determined position.

A new CRS policy statement embraces the “fundamental core value” of confidentiality. But then CRS ratchets it up to the point of absurdity.

“[CRS] staff must maintain a confidential relationship with congressional clients at all times. Each and every inquiry CRS receives is part of a confidential relationship,” the CRS policy affirms. So far, so good.

“Confidentiality requires that CRS staff members never acknowledge to another congressional client, government entity or official, or to the public or media, work that has been done for a specific Member or committee.” Okay. But then CRS goes over the edge.

“Even in instances when a Member or committee publicly releases a confidential memorandum that CRS has prepared, staff may not provide copies of the memorandum to other congressional clients.” That’s overkill.

“You should answer any questions that [other] congressional clients have about the issue by preparing a new memorandum or other form of response […], but you must do so in a way that neither confirms nor denies that CRS did the work that has been made publicly available [by the Member or committee].” Instead of confidentiality serving as a valuable means to an end, the new policy here elevates confidentiality into an end in itself, and in doing so casts doubt on the good sense of CRS management.

Attempts to elicit comment from CRS on this issue last week by telephone and email were not successful.

See Policy on Confidentiality, Congressional Research Service, September 22, 2015, with accompanying Frequently Asked Questions.

All of that pertains to confidential memoranda that are prepared for individual Members or committees. By contrast, CRS Reports are produced for the Congress as a whole. As such, they are “accorded a less restrictive level of confidentiality than other types of CRS work,” the new policy states. But others would say the reports are not confidential at all, and should not be, particularly since they do not implicate the views of any individual Member of Congress.

New and updated CRS publications of the latter sort that were issued in the past week include the following.

Is This the First Step in Undoing Mass Incarceration? 6,000 Federal Drug Offenders Set to be Released, CRS Insight, October 22, 2015

Legal Obligation of U.S. Armed Forces to Intervene in Acts of Bacha Bazi in Afghanistan, CRS Legal Sidebar, October 22, 2015

Escalating Violence in El Salvador, CRS Insight, October 22, 2015

China’s Recent Stock Market Volatility: What Are the Implications?, CRS Insight, updated October 21, 2015

Oil to Spare: The House Passes a Repeal of Crude Oil Export Restrictions, CRS Legal Sidebar, October 23, 2015

The Effect of Base-Broadening Measures on Labor Supply and Investment: Considerations for Tax Reform, October 22, 2015

Department of Veterans Affairs FY2016 Appropriations: In Brief, October 22, 2015

Vulnerable Youth: Federal Mentoring Programs and Issues, October 22, 2015

Legislative Actions to Repeal, Defund, or Delay the Affordable Care Act, October 22, 2015

Financial Transactions Taxes: In Brief, October 22, 2015

U.S. Postal Service Workforce Size and Employment Categories, FY1995-FY2014, October 21, 2015

Potential Policy Implications of the House Reconciliation Bill (H.R. 3762), October 21, 2015

Why Are Over-Income Tenants Living in Public Housing?, CRS Insight, October 22, 2015