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What Scares CRS About Going Public

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, May 12 2009

Here's how you know that open government absolutists and CRS, the internal research wing of Congress, are so far apart that the entire Library of Congress plus the states of Connecticut and Arizona could fit comfortably between them. At the very same time Joe Lieberman and John McCain are pushing legislation to force CRS to post their closely-held report database online for all the world to see, CRS is calling in the FBI (!) to figure out how a cache of their reports got out onto the Interwebs.

As things stand, CRS operates under a somewhat convoluted systems in which members of Congress can dribble out CRS reports to constituents as they desire. Beyond that, Jane Citizen can proactively get her hands on a report through her representative, if she knows enough to ask for the latest work on airport passenger screening or organized crimes (two recent CRS work products). The whole system can be a bit nutty. And nutty to the tune of about $100 million a year. The New York Times today is editorializing in favor of Lieberman and McCain's plan under S. Res. 118 for a public "centralized electronic system" of CRS reports:

The Congressional Research Service investigates important issues and produces detailed, well-written reports that are available to members of Congress but not the general public. A resolution has been introduced in the Senate to make these reports freely available online. It would be an important step forward for government openness, and it would narrow the information gap between Washington insiders and ordinary Americans.

But it's worth considering why CRS objects so strongly to a shift in its mission from a purely internal expert body to something with a public face. It's helpful to see CRS as it sees itself: a consigliere to Congress, a veritable Silvio Dante to the 535 Tony Sopranos that make up the Senate and House. CRS's 700 or so staffers have one mission in life, and that's to whisper into the congressional ear all the best facts, theories, and developments on the major issues of the day.

From the CRS website: "CRS is well known for analysis that is authoritative, confidential, objective and nonpartisan. Its highest priority is to ensure that Congress has 24/7 access to the nation's best thinking." And: "The Congressional Research Service provides, exclusively to the United States Congress, objective, non-partisan assessments of legislative options for addressing the public policy problems facing the nation." Emphasis added, though the point is clear enough either way.

An internal CRS memo a few years back argued that there were several very good reasons why the office didn't want to a more public role. The first: it's not about them. It's the job of Congress to actively engage with constituents; that's why MOCs get paid the big bucks. Inject CRS into the mix "threatens the dialog on policy issues between Members and their constituents that was envisioned by the Constitution." Beyond that, a more public CRS threatens confidentiality (though the Lieberman/McCain bill mitigates that concern somewhat by exempting reports specifically requested by congressional offices) and it runs the risk of queering the focus of CRS report writers so that they're tailoring their work for a public audience. And a whole new body of public work might possibly create a whole new raft of public questions about said work -- questions that have to be answered by either overstretched congressional offices or CRS itself.

There's a subtext, though, that is missing from the CRS memo (or at least the now-public parts of it). And that's that politicized expert agencies can sometimes have a tough time in the world of Congress. Expert agencies like CBO and GAO ferociously guard their images as independent arbiters of truth, which leads to classic GAO on-the-one-hand report titles like "Agency X is Doing a Good Job, But Room for Improvement Remains." (OMB is in a somewhat better position, having a powerful defender in their main client, a.k.a. the President of the United States.) Understandably, CRS is reluctant to stick its neck out into the public sphere, lest its head get chopped off.

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