Today: Oversight hearing on the Congressional Research Service

The House Committee on Administration is holding a hearing on the Congressional Research Service (CRS) at 10am today. The hearing may be viewed online.

The CRS is critical to the functioning of Congress. Its analysts and information specialists help congressional staff make policy and oversee the executive and judicial branches. Its importance cannot be understated, and the agency’s history is storied.

“George Galloway of the CRS helped with congressional reorganization in 1946, and his wife, Eileen, worked with Lyndon Johnson to create NASA in 1958. In the early 1970s, Walter Kravitz, Walter Oleszek, and Louis Fisher helped Congress reorganize itself and claw back some power from the executive branch. Harold Relyea was heavily involved in Congress’s opening of government agency meetings via the Government in Sunshine Act in 1976. Fisher was the research director for the House Iran-Contra Committee, and drafted much of its report. Congress’s foreign affairs committees turned to Joseph Whelan to better understand Leonid Brezhnev and Soviet policy. Vee Burke spent thirty years working and reworking welfare programs, culminating in the 1996 legislation that, in Bill Clinton’s famous phrase, ‘ended welfare as we know it.’”

But problems exist at the “temple of wonkery.”

A Roll Call article reports this is the first CRS oversight hearing in 12 years, and will focus on leadership problems, staff diversity shortfalls, and employee morale issues. Jody Feder, who worked at the CRS for 15 years, told Roll Call, “A culture of mismanagement has led many experienced analysts to leave the agency and had a negative impact on CRS’s service to Congress.”

CRS employee union representative Susan Thaul’s written testimony states CRS’s American Law Division (ALD) has 19% employee turnover per year. Thaul will testify at the hearing, as will CRS director, Mary Mazanec, who has led the agency since 2011. (Dr. Mazanec’s statement, which does not speak to the allegations of mismanagement and staff angst, is here.) The agency’s other research divisions also have experienced significant turnover during recent years, as had the director’s office. Former analyst and acting research manager, Kevin Kosar, writes in a statement to the committee:

“That people are choosing to leave the CRS—a place where a wonk can rise to the GS-15 pay level and earn more than $160,000 a year—is not a healthy sign…. Excessive turnover at the CRS and the loss of good employees is bad for the agency, bad for Congress…. The CRS is supposed to serve as the institutional memory for Congress, and this objective is imperiled by high turnover. Moreover, it costs a lot to onboard and train new employees. Congress has made significant investment in the CRS in recent years, and this investment is squandered when newly hire staff quit after short tenures at the agency.”

Thaul’s testimony sounds the same alarm.

“The attorneys leaving include new hires who came to CRS excited to join this well respected icon on Capitol Hill. As they have told us, once here, they saw the atmosphere of fear and distrust in ALD even if they were not directly caught up in it. They may leave for better jobs or move across country for a spouse’s job. But several have told us they soon looked for another job because they did not want to stay in CRS. Others felt they were being forced out after decades of outstanding, commendable, and fully successful service.”

CRS employee morale also has been roiled by claims its staff cannot fully deploy their expertise for Congress. Former legislative attorney, Andie Wyatt, has warned that agency leadership is watering down CRS research so as not to offend political sensibilities. In 2018, Wyatt took the extraordinary action of writing an open letter to both Mazanec and Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress. (Wyatt later quit the agency.)

Federation of American Scientists scholar, Steven Aftergood, has noted that CRS experts often are forced to “pretend there is a range of valid opinions on some issues” due to pressure from CRS leadership. Louis Fisher, writes that the CRS has replaced its corps of top experts (“senior specialists”) with managers who do little work for Congress, a practice in direct contradiction to CRS’s statute. Kosar claims agency leadership’s excessive risk aversion makes for a “crabbed” working environment where opportunities to better serve Congress are missed. “Apparently, CRS has no analysts working on details for the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Instead, the Committee’s fellows have been provided by two external organizations….This is a missed opportunity for the CRS, as CRS experts staffed previous legislative reorganization committees in the early 1990s and 1970s.”

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