The Congressional Research Service’s evolving role in oversight

Note: This presentation was delivered at the Oversight Summit convened by the Project on Government Oversight on November 16, 2018.

My topic is the Congressional Research Service, which aides oversight in various ways.

As a preface I should note that I worked at the CRS from 2003-2014 as a nonpartisan analyst and acting research manager. I left to work at the R Street Institute, a think-tank, but I remain a very big fan of CRS, and I have been an advocate for increasing its funding and giving it more operational freedom.

As I see it, CRS is an essential agency for a representative democracy. Now, why do I say that? Well, people who are elected to Congress arrive here in DC with a very difficult task: overseeing a $4.5 trillion executive branch with 170+ agencies, tens of thousands of pages of laws on the books and more than 180,000 pages of federal regulations. This is why elected officials need a corps of nonpartisan experts who can help them understand what is going on. And that is a role CRS plays.

My comments today are based upon a law review article I published some months ago titled, “The Atrophying of the Congressional Research Service’s Role in Supporting Committee Oversight.” 

So let me first give a picture of what role CRS is supposed to have in oversight. Then I can describe the role CRS presently plays and how we got here. And I then will conclude on a positive note.

CRS as Partner of the Committees

CRS was established more than 100 years ago, but was reborn into its current incarnation in 1970. This was an era in which Congress sought to reclaim its Article I powers. One means was by taking the Legislative Reference Service and rechristening it the Congressional Research Service. Its staff was more than doubled, and included highly compensated senior specialists who were to be preeminent in their fields. Congress gave CRS the charge of working to identify issues for committees to examine in depth, and CRS researchers were to work hand-in-glove with committees on lengthy details.

From the 1970s through the mid-1990s, CRS analysts aided numerous major oversight efforts. Some grabbed headlines, such as the Watergate and the White Water investigations. Most were less newsmaking, such as congressional hearings on government reorganization, budget process reforms, intelligence agency oversight, government reorganization, and whistleblower protection. CRS analysts helped run hearings, and compile and analyze information extracted from agencies. CRS memoranda and reports very often were published by committees as part of hearings or as stand-alone committee prints. 

Back then it was pretty easy for CRS specialists to go spend extended periods of time with committees. When a committee called and asked for help, an analyst or specialist filled out a form and handed it to his or her boss and went. It was a win-win arrangement. Committees benefited from nonpartisan expertise and CRS researchers got to apply their deep knowledge and training to study policy problems through extended engagements that could last months.

Declining Committee Power; Declining CRS Capacity

Over time, however, CRS’ role in deep dive oversight began to diminish. One factor accounting for this is lagging capacity—specifically, declining CRS staff counts. The agency grew from around 360 employees in 1971 to just under 800 workers in 1985. By the time I arrived in 2003, it had 670 employees, which dwindled to about 600 subsequently. Some of these staff were replaced through automation. For example, desktop PCs meant the agency no longer needed typists. But Congress’ appropriations simply did not keep up with the rising compensation costs at the agency—CRS is one of the rare places in government where non-manager can rise to GS-15, which is the top of the typical civil servant pay scale. 

Additionally, for reasons never explained aloud, CRS quit hiring senior specialists, who are compensated at the GS-17 level, and instead used the senior specialist title for managers who seldom work directly with committees.

Fewer CRS staff meant fewer individuals to lend to the Hill for extended oversight efforts. 

Another factor is that congressional demands on CRS kept going up, up, up. For example, in FY2016, CRS fielded 62,000 requests for help from Congress. 

The Hill also changed. The House cut its committee staff in the 1990s and shunted more personal office employees to the districts. Fewer Hill staff meant that more constituent requests and rudimentary informational requests flowed onto the desks of CRS analysts, a trend that was exacerbated further by the sharp rise in constituent communications via email and other 21st century means. 

And Congress’ committees themselves engaged in fewer oversight exercises. Regular, bipartisan oversight of agencies and their activities fell away. CRS, wisely, did its best to avoid being pulled into the made-for-tv shout-fest hearings, but CRS also grew gun-shy about its analysts doing any long-term details to committees—lest they be viewed as working for one party or the other. Extended deep dive engagements with committees became more rare.

Over time, then, a greater portion of CRS’ workload has become responding to individual member requests, and satisfying informational requests, like “Why is the Postal Service running deficits?” Most of these requests are satisfied via email or telephone calls. 

This is not what the 1970 Legislative Reorganization Act had envisioned. Congress established CRS to assist committees with oversight. Its statutory duties to individual legislators, meanwhile, are few. Yet today the great glut of CRS’ work is responding to individual legislator office requests—rather than helping committees conduct oversight.

CRS Continues to Support Oversight

Much of what I said sounds dour. But the situation, to be clear, is not all doom and gloom.

First, CRS continues to aid Congress in oversight in various ways. Committee staff download CRS reports and legal opinions, call analysts over to advise them on questions to ask at hearings and the like. CRS also tends to receive research requests from most if not all congressional committees. All of which is good.

Second, the FY2019 appropriations bill provided $21 million more for CRS to spend on staff. That is a big rise in funding. So, CRS is hiring—presently about half a dozen positions are being advertised. How many of these are new positions and how many are replacements for folks who have retired or quit is not clear.

Will CRS be able to do more deep dive oversight engagements with committees? That will depend on a couple factors. 

First CRS leadership itself will need to proactively reach out to committees to seek engagements. Hopefully it will do so. 

Second, committees themselves have to agree to operate in a more bipartisan way, and to schedule more oversight hearings where CRS can be of help. 

Hopefully, with a bit of encouragement from the agency’s overseers and those of us on the outside, both CRS and committees will renew their mutually beneficial relationships.

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