Something rare has occurred—a collection of reports authored by the Congressional Research Service has been published and made freely available to the public. The 500-page volume, titled “The Evolving Congress,” was produced in conjunction with CRS’s celebration of its 100th anniversary this year. Congress, not CRS, published it. (Disclaimer: Before departing CRS in October, I helped edit a portion of the volume.)
The Congressional Research Service does not release its reports publicly. CRS posts its reports at CRS.gov, a website accessible only to Congress and its staff. The agency has a variety of reasons for this policy, not least that its statute does not assign it this duty. Congress, with ease, could change this policy. Indeed, it already makes publicly available the bill digests (or “summaries”) CRS produces at Congress.gov.
The Evolving Congress is a remarkable collection of essays that covers a broad range of topic. Readers would be advised to start from the beginning. Walter Oleszek provides a lengthy essay on how Congress has changed over the past century. Michael Koempel then assesses how the job of congressman has evolved (or devolved, depending on one’s perspective). “Over time, both chambers developed strategies to reduce the quantity of time given over to legislative work in order to accommodate members’ other duties,” Koempel observes.
The Evolving Congress’ 20 remaining essays are devoted to close-up looks at Congress (e.g., members’ demography, congressional staff) and how policy gets made (e.g., the rushed establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, the perennial extension of tax breaks). Altogether, the essays inform the reader how Congress, despite its evident dysfunction, does get some things done—often in creative ways.
If anything, The Evolving Congress provides further evidence that CRS’ reports should be released to the public. Congress and federal policy are complex, often maddeningly so. Freeing CRS’ reports would give the public something tangible in return for the $107 million it pays for CRS’ operations: an oasis of unbiased information in an Internet awash with half-truths and outright buncombe. And unlike most political science research, CRS’ work tends to be easy to read.
Hopefully, the 114th Congress will end this policy and post CRS reports online at Congress.gov.
Kevin R. Kosar is the Director of the Governance Project and a Senior Fellow at the R Street Institute. He worked at the Congressional Research Service from 2003-2014. This op-ed was first published at CongressionalData.org.