Last week’s House vote garnered a lot of attention but changed nothing. We see little room for Speaker McCarthy to maneuver to stay at the top of his conference while simultaneously negotiating a deal that avoids default on our nation’s debt. Prior Republican speakers have cut loose part of their conference to avert catastrophe, but the changes in chamber and party rules tie McCarthy to the maximalists.
A clean bill to avert a debt default should be non-negotiable. Even with negotiations, we don’t see an attainable zone of agreement before there’s a default. Republicans are desperately hoping Democrats will get blamed and cave. A lot of people will be hurt in the process.
Instead of contemplating all this, our attention was captured by an excellent House Administration Committee hearing on the modernization of the Congressional Research Service that called out the elephant in the room: The agency is failing in its core functions, it has been failing for a long time, and the root cause is poor leadership.
Meanwhile, the Capitol Police and Senate Sergeant at Arms called for yet another giant funding increase at their Senate appropriations hearing while a new report from POGO pointed out management failings at the Capitol Police; the Supreme Court snubbed the Senate while springing another ethics leak; and we got word on what appropriations austerity would do to GAO. (It’s not good).
Don’t miss our links to video from the AI in Congress conference last week and an opportunity to RSVP for the next Congressional Data Task Force meeting.
This week the Senate is in session from Monday to Thursday and the House is out. Both chambers return next week.
Save the dates: House appropriations markups will take place on May 17-18 and June 7-8, will full committee markups on May 23-25 and June 13-15th.
As a former staffer and team leader at CRS, Kevin Kosar has strong personal attachments to the organization that he decided to leave a decade ago. He’s written for years about the inherent strengths and unique contributions CRS makes to Congress’s ability to perform its essential functions — and how both it and Congress could improve its performance. But when asked directly by CHA Modernization Subcommittee Chair Stephanie Bice to name the one thing the committee could do to improve CRS’s service to Congress he didn’t mince words: he replied “if you want to affect change in the most immediate way, you change leadership.”
Watch his full answer here. It’s worth 90 seconds of your time.
Kosar’s testimony came after the testimony of CRS’s Director Mary Mazanec, which met with a significant amount of skepticism from the committee. We could bore you with details about what’s failing at CRS: $20 million wasted on failed technology projects, high staff turnover, poor morale, low diversity, and a failure to modernize the agency’s products for today’s congressional users.
Many of these problems existed when the House Admin Committee held a hearing into CRS in 2019. Heck, it was a problem when Daniel hosted a panel discussion on CRS modernization in 2011. Having watched all the appropriations and oversight hearings going back 14 years, CRS leadership keeps saying it’s on top of fixing these problems but nothing ever changes. It’s almost like they’re trying to placate their overseers just long enough for committee membership to turn over. Hence the skepticism.
What was nice about the hearing were presentations from other witnesses: the liaison from the European Parliament who helped build their CRS (check out their website, and podcasts, and social media!) and a representative of USAFacts, which uses dashboards to provide data about America. All of this points to new ways of doing business. The EU conducted a multi-country survey before creating their legislative support office agencies. When was the last time anyone took an across-the-board look and reimagined what support to Congress could become?
As Kosar noted in his testimony, CRS has a quinquagenarian (i.e., 50-ish-year-old) enabling statute, some of which is outmoded. For example, there are no term limits for CRS’s director and only indirect control for Congress (via the Librarian). This means that, unlike other agency heads, bad leaders don’t just automatically exist without Congress acting. CRS’s statute also outlines a heavy support role for congressional committees — a role that has greatly diminished over time — where CRS could be the non-partisan staff that support committees in their tasks. The agency has largely become a helpdesk, and its management is unwilling to let staff use their expertise to provide real analysis to Congress.
The House Administration Committee should make a number of recommendations on how to improve CRS. (Here are ours.) For example:
- it should require regular public-facing reports on staff retention and employee satisfaction;
- collaboration with civil society on technology development, the publication of all its non-confidential work products online in web-friendly formats;
- the development of technologies that support staff and policy analysis; and
- a move to user-centered design.
Most of the major improvements in CRS over the last decade have been foisted upon the service, largely through the work of overseers and appropriators in collaboration with civil society. But it’s not possible to drag CRS into modernity. We’ve tried.
CRS needs leaders in the front office that embrace the future. Leadership that wants to modernize, not ice out the modernizers and punish the innovators. We agree with Kosar: CRS needs new leadership capable of devising and executing on a long-term vision for its service to Congress and understands getting the best out of a knowledgeable, highly-educated workforce.
We are having a bipartisan moment right now on what a modern Legislative branch looks like. This is one of the key building blocks. We eagerly await what will emerge from the House Administration Committee.
Continue reading “First Branch Forecast for May 1, 2023: Analyzing CRS”