How Has the Congressional Research Service’s Work Changed Over Thirty Years?

How has the Congressional Research Service’s work changed over the last 30 years? We gathered almost five decades of the agency’s annual reports and built a spreadsheet of its self-reported activities. We found interesting patterns, the absence of expected patterns, and lots of missing data. Our key findings:

First, CRS is decreasing its consultations with clients and shifting its resources to providing written products.

Second, CRS is creating more “new” written products and providing fewer “updated” written products, which suggests a shift away from creating and maintaining in-depth analytical products to comparatively superficial, fast-response pieces. 

Third, there’s no apparent connection between the products CRS creates and public access to general distribution CRS reports.

A few dozen words on nomenclature.

CRS divides its written work products into three categories. 

  1. New reports: written products available for general distribution. 
  2. Updated reports: updated versions of previously published CRS reports that are available for general distribution. 
  3. Custom and confidential writings: documents that are not made available from CRS, although they may be publicly released by the entity that requested them. 

For a report to be available for general distribution, in the modern era that means the report was published on CRS’s internal and external websites. Until recently, CRS routinely removed reports from its internal website, so many general distribution reports can be hard or impossible to find.

CRS generates another kind of document, known as congressional distribution memoranda, which are a hybrid. They are not available on CRS’s internal website, but they will be provided to congressional staff upon request. We do not know whether or how CRS accounts for these memoranda among its written work products.

In addition to its written work product, CRS provides consultations for its clients (i.e., congressional members and staff). These consultations can be in person, by phone, or by email. 

In the following sections, we discuss CRS’s written work products with respect to its non-confidential and confidential publications. We then look at CRS’s consultations with its clients.

Non-confidential reports: New Reports

Looking at CRS’s written products, we found a marked decrease in the number of new reports from 1995 to 2013, sliding from around 1,300 reports to around 450 reports. But then in 2014, the number of new reports jumped significantly, to nearly 1,100, and have stayed roughly at that level.

Non-confidential reports: Updated Reports

At the same time, the number of updated reports has been consistently trending downward. In 2002, there were 4,163 updated reports, and that number has dropped to just under 2,000 updated reports in 2018.

Non-confidential reports: Trends?

Combining the datasets together, it appears that the number of new reports has increased while the number of updated reports has decreased. What do the trends mean? It’s tough to say. 

We have heard testimony from CRS employees that the agency has moved away from longer, in-depth reports to more faster, and more superficial products. If true, these trendlines could support that theory: newer reports appear to be shorter than older reports, generally speaking. Further support for the theory could be found in the fact of fewer updates of older reports, which tended to be more complicated and lengthy. 

To know the answer, we’d have to know the number of pages in each of these reports, which would probably require CRS handing over its database so we could run the analysis or look to private sources of the reports.

Confidential and Custom Writing

Looking at the confidential and custom writings is a bit puzzling. In 1995 there were 2,748 custom and confidential writings, which is essentially the same number as today. But the number shrank significantly until the mid-2000s, at one point as low as 1,705, and then swelled to 3,640. What does this mean?

It is tough to say for certain. But it does appear that the publication of CRS reports online by third-parties, such as the Federation of American Scientists, did not have an effect on CRS’s decisions to move some of is reports from being general distribution to being classified as confidential. 

We know that CRS classifies some of its reports as memoranda, a category that is not obvious from the data, which are reports available to staff if they ask for them, but are not published on CRS’s internal website. We don’t know how they are reflected in this data. It’s not known how widespread the process is of keeping quiet reports that could get CRS into political hot water by only making them available upon request. 

CRS Consultation With Its Clients

As mentioned above, CRS has three main methods of providing consultation with Congress: in person briefings, consultations by phone, and consultations by email. For many years, email consultations were not allowed, so the most recent data we have on that is from 2010.

The number of in-person consultations has shrunk by more than 2,000 and then swelled by 1,000 over baseline, but the number from 1995 — 4,321 consultations — is very similar to the number from 2018, which is 4,305. This mirrors the pattern across the board.

Communications by phone have effectively been cut in half over the last three decades, from around 54,000 in 1995 to 24,000 in 2018. 

By contrast, email consultations have held steady at around 26,000 since 2010. In other words, some of the phone calls have become emails, although it seems that less consultations are happening overall. The overall phone + email consultations in 2010 were around 66,000, and have declined steadily to 52,000 in 2018.

Over the last decade, CRS staff are providing significantly fewer consultations with Congressional staff, whether as briefings, phone calls, or emails. It appears, however, that the number of consultations may be higher than in the late 1990s. We cannot tell the pattern for CRS prior to 1994.

It seems there could be a significant push to have staff prefer written communications (whether general distribution or private memoranda) over in-person consultations. 

Putting this all together, CRS appears to be generating more basic written products, not maintaining more complex written products, and, in the last decade, has decreased the amount of consultations it provides to Congress. This could reflect a lack of capacity (and expertise) at CRS to provide more in-depth support, changing demands from leadership in terms of what support they expect staff to provide Congress, and potentially changing signals from Congress regarding what they want.

How and why did we do this study?

We obtained every CRS Annual Report to Congress from 1971 forward and built our own dataset from the information contained in those reports. This was not easy to do, and there are significant gaps in the data.

We wanted to answer two questions. First, how has CRS’s work product shifted over time, especially as the agency has suffered significant staff and budget cuts, had its senior leadership turnover, and changed the natures of the employees it hired. Second, whether there is an obvious connection between increasing public access to CRS reports and CRS’s work product. 
CRS reports have actually always been publicly available to a degree: certain reports could be found through a congressional office, included in committee reports, and published proactively; and in the 1980’s there was even a CRS newsletter that anyone could subscribe to. Private entities re-sold CRS reports to those who could afford to pay. A number of private websites were created to provide free public access. The Federation of American Scientists probably has the best known website, first created in the 2000s; and we run EveryCRSReport.com, which made thousands of reports available to the public.

Written by Daniel Schuman with research contributions by Amelia Strauss