There are a lot of worthless government programs out there, but the Congressional Research Service is not one of them. Congress has to deal with plenty of disparate topics, and would still have to even if Congress was limited to things they actually should worry about. Needless to say, Congressmen are not going to be experts on all subjects they’ll be voting on. And while they can always direct their staff to collect information, that could lead massive redundancy if every member of Congress ordered a separate report for something… Besides, then you have to worry that one or two politically motivated members of your staff will bias the report in a particular direction. Better to have one central, nonpartisan source for this sort of thing. Which is exactly what the CRS is. According to their website:
The Congressional Research Service serves the Congress throughout the legislative process by providing comprehensive and reliable legislative research and analysis that are timely, objective, authoritative, and confidential, thereby contributing to an informed national legislature.
As Congress’s legislative agenda adjusts to the ever-changing issues of the nation and the world, CRS realigns its services to meet those needs. But our commitment to our core values does not waver. CRS analysis is confidential, authoritative, objective and nonpartisan. These core values underscore our service to Congress and are an enduring feature of CRS work.
Confidential. All queries and exchanges with Members of Congress are held in the strictest confidence. Legislators and congressional staff are free to access CRS experts and analysis, explore issues, dispute them, ask questions about them, or float an unusual idea — all without question, challenge or disclosure. CRS employees do not discuss work undertaken for a Member or a committee with another congressional office or with anyone outside the organization.
Authoritative. All services and products are authoritative and accurate. Analysts demonstrate rigorous research methodologies, free of built-in bias. They present, explain and justify any critical assumptions; investigate and recheck data anomalies; use primary resources whenever available; double-check all statements of fact; and document and vet all sources. This assures Members, as they engage in debate, that the analysis they rely on is as accurate as it is current.
Objective and Nonpartisan. We maintain an outstanding reputation for objective and nonpartisan analysis. Our experts are vigilant in evaluating issues without bias. A multi-layered review process also helps ensure that CRS products present issues and analysis in a manner that is fair, considered and reliable.
Their annual budget is around $100 million and they issue ~700 reports a year, along with numerous other inquiries. Given the size of our government, that seems like a pretty reasonable drop in the bucket to me. There’s only one problem: we’re not special enough to see what they do. That’s right, the CRS – a nonpartisan resource for legislation – only makes their reports available to members of Congress. There’s no problem with top secret information or anything, it’s simply not available.
Congress is there to serve us. We elect our representatives trusting that they’ll make the best decisions possible. But then we reelect them based on whether or not we agree with what they did. Every step of the way (unless security is an issue, of course), we should be able to second guess them. To do that, we need the best information available. So if they’re going to base their decisions in part based off of these reports, shouldn’t we be able to see these reports too?
Besides that, there’s the basic issue of transparancy. This is our money that’s paying for this service. That means we own it. Not Congress, not the government, but us. We the people. And being the owners of this service, we should be the ones with access to it. How are we supposed to know they’re doing their job correctly? How are we supposed to know their reports truly are nonpartisan?
It’s a simple rule, but one I live by. All else being equal, increase the power to the people, not the government. There’s no logical reason for why this isn’t available to us. It wouldn’t cost much; just a fraction of their current budget. There’s no security issues. It wouldn’t hamper their ability to perform. So why can’t we see them? Why doesn’t someone in Congress change this?
Because it won’t effect their ability to get elected. I know. But besides that?
On the plus side, a lot of their reports do end up getting leaked to the public. Open CRS has done an excellent job in collecting them. But that’s not enough. We need to get the entire thing out there. If we had legistlators actually committed to honesty and transparancy, this might happen. Funny, I don’t see that happening with either party.