CRS Director’s Retirement Renews Old Questions

01.24.11 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Daniel P. Mulhollan, director of the Congressional Research Service, told CRS staff last week that he will be retiring in April.  Mr. Mulhollan, who joined CRS in 1969, has been director of the congressional support organization for the past 14 years, making him its longest-serving leader.

Although the basic parameters of CRS operation are set by Congress, Mr. Mulhollan’s departure may encourage reconsideration of some particular CRS policies that he favored.  These could include, for example, the CRS posture of strict neutrality, the deliberate erosion of CRS expertise in recent years, and perhaps the policy of barring direct public access to CRS reports.

“Dan loved CRS, and he worked hard to keep it above the Hill’s political fray,” said one CRS analyst.  “He kept CRS from suffering what GAO did– getting downsized because it was viewed as too friendly to one political party.”

But a former CRS analyst saw the issue of CRS impartiality differently:  “In 2003, Dan invented a new standard of ‘neutrality’ that prohibits any analyst, no matter the weight of evidence, from stating that one position is stronger than another.  The result is a remarkable watering down of CRS reports, a trend that has been noticed not only by congressional staff but by readers outside of Congress.  Neither CBO nor GAO follows the standard of ‘neutrality’,” the former analyst said.

Another question is whether CRS should provide greater depth of analytical expertise or whether it should emphasize basic tutorials and reference services geared particularly towards new members and younger staffers.

The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 mandated the appointment of highly qualified Specialists and Senior Specialists at CRS to be “available for special work” for congressional committees and members, on topics such as American government, foreign policy, economics, and others.

Under Mr. Mulhollan, these top two levels of CRS expertise have atrophied.  “Not since 1989 has CRS hired a Senior Specialist,” according to a former analyst.  In 1988 there were 18 of them.  “The number is now down to four, with all facing retirement.”  Similarly, in the late 1980s there were 38 research Specialists.  “The number is now down to five, with all close to retirement.”

“In short, Dan over his reign has wiped out the two top levels of analytical competence” at CRS, the former analyst said.  He has allocated their slots and salaries to “full-time administrators who have never done analytical work.”

A current CRS analyst said the future of the organization would have to be different from its past, and that sophisticated subject matter expertise may not be the main thing that Congress is looking for.  “CRS is famed for being apolitical and expert, but some congressional staff also find it a bit stodgy.  For example, the CRS website lacks full text search, and it doesn’t have podcasts or videos.  It’s just a heap of long, dry reports, and often what the staffers need are primers or short essays.”

As for the policy of blocking direct public access to CRS reports, Congress is responsible for that, but it was firmly embraced by Mr. Mulhollan.  (On various occasions since the 1990s, he expressed disapproval of FAS due to our continuing practice of publishing CRS reports online.)  His successor could conceivably help to facilitate a change of direction in this area.

Before his departure, Mr. Mulhollan is expected to name an acting director, “someone who likely will continue his management policies and practices,” according to one observer.  The appointment of a new CRS director will be up to the Librarian of Congress.