Have CRS Annual Reports Disappeared?

Every year the Congressional Research Service submits a report to Congress that provides some information about the agency’s work over the preceding year. From these reports you can glean some insights about how the agency is run, what they prioritize, the long term projects they have undertaken, get a list of new CRS reports, and understand a bit about their interrelationship with Congress. In general terms, it’s a promotional piece for CRS that shows the agency’s work in the best possible light — it’s geared for appropriators — and also includes some useful information about CRS’s operations. Many agencies publish these kinds of promotional reports. 

The reports are a snapshot, and on their own don’t provide much information about changes in the agency’s behavior over time. However, if you take the data from reports across many years, you can start to draw conclusions about how their operations have changed. We’ve tried to do just that — but ran into some interesting stumbling blocks. This article is about how hard it is to get information that should be publicly available.

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The first thing to know about CRS’s annual reports is that, until very recently, when CRS published the current year’s report, the agency removed the prior year’s report. Well, not entirely — CRS didn’t delete the old report, but they did remove the hyperlink, making it invisible unless you use the Wayback Machine or you’re crazy enough to try variations on the current URL to find the old reports. We did both: things never truly disappear on the internet.  However, to give CRS credit, when we raised the issue with them, they restored the links and published reports going back to 2009.

The second thing to know is that CRS actually issued two versions of their annual report. One version was sent to their congressional overseers. A second, silently redacted version, was published online. Dozens of pages were removed that merely listed the names of new reports released in the last year. For example, the 2016 annual report has the silent omissions, but the 2017 annual report contains a list of newly released reports. We asked CRS to publish the full versions of the reports, and while they did not go back in time, starting in 2017 they began publishing complete reports. 

Because we wanted data for CRS going back a few decades — we are looking at changes in the kinds of reports published by CRS — and CRS’s online materials only go back to 2009, we decided to build our own repository. The process has been more difficult than expected. We found reports from 1971-1980 on Hathi Trust. We had truncated versions of the last decade’s worth of reports from CRS’s website. Fortunately, our colleague Kevin Kosar was able to find reports from 1995 forward through alternative sources. Even so, the reports from 1981-1995 are missing. Here’s where we looked.

The first thing we did was search many of the usual databases. We looked at the various electronic services, ironically using the Law Library of Congress’s resources. In addition, we sent an email to a list of several thousand government document Librarians. We asked for help at the reference desk at Law Library of Congress. We contacted several oversight and authorizing committee offices that one might expect would have them. We reached out to some librarian friends. No luck. 

Then we asked CRS for copies of the reports. After some back-and-forth, CRS made it clear they would be unable to provide them to us and we would not be permitted to go to CRS and view any reports they might have. However, we could make a formal request through the Library’s FOIA-like process. We submitted a request in August for reports from 1981-1995 and have not received a response.

In the interim, we reached out to the National Archives in the hopes their Center for Legislative Archives may have old copies of the reports in the committee files they hold for Congress. They didn’t. With the assistance of a Congressional intermediary, we reached out to the Senate Library, which did not have any copies. We contacted several regional depository libraries, including the one at the University of Maryland, but had no luck. We reached out to former staff at the Joint Committee on Printing, but that was unavailing. 

We went to the Library of Congress in person to consult with a reference librarian. We were informed the Library just keeps the last 10 years of reports on hand. While an electronic search turned up nothing, the librarian searched the catalogue for the historic reports, which turned up one of the missing reports—a print version of the 1985 edition (call number JK1108 .A28). Foolishly, we didn’t make a copy at the time. When we returned several weeks later to scan the report, it had gone missing and is nowhere to be found.

We also reached out to the archives managing papers for the Members of Congress who served as Chair and Ranking Member of the Committee on House Administration and Senate Rules Committee during the relevant time frame—Reps. Frank Annunzio and Charles Rose III as well as Senators Charles Mathias Jr. and Wendell Ford. None of the collections included Congressional Research Service Annual Reports to Congress.

We haven’t been able to find an explanation of why these specific reports are missing. We don’t know why the FOIA-like office at the Library of Congress hasn’t responded. We are running out of ideas.

Based on the 1985 report, and the pre-existing 1971-1980 reports, we have reason to suspect CRS annual reports were produced between 1981-1995. Were they written? Were they submitted? Where are they? It’s a mystery to us.

If you know — or have any clues — email us at [email protected] and [email protected].

Written by Daniel Schuman and Amelia Strauss