Move to open CRS reports spotlights agency’s climate debate
“I find it exceedingly distressing that CRS management would not have the backs of their in-house experts,” said Kevin Kosar, vice president of policy at R Street Institute and a former CRS employee.
“A CRS analyst could write the sky is blue and someone is going to complain about it,” Kosar said. “You can’t flinch every time somebody gets mad. It kills morale, and it kills the ability of analysts to do their jobs if they have to not make expert judgments.”
Wyatt and a handful of former CRS analysts, including Kosar, sent a letter to the agency’s leadership earlier this year stating their concerns and urging CRS to take advantage of its unique position to draw expert conclusions by recalibrating its “objectivity practices.”
Kosar said CRS has a history of avoiding risk, which has led many analysts to jump ship. A job at CRS is a “wonderful position,” he said, where you can make tenure after one year of employment and, as an analyst, enjoy a potential $150,000 salary without having to manage anyone.
“Nonetheless, the place is hemorrhaging employees,” he said. “People are leaving; people at the top of the agency who are dissatisfied with present leadership. Analysts have left, reference librarians have left, other support staff have left.”
Kosar, who worked at the agency from 2003 to 2014, said he left in part because he found he had fewer and fewer opportunities to utilize his expertise.
“Part of it is that Congress increasingly uses CRS has a kind of help desk,” he said. “It’s also the case that CRS is affording its employees fewer opportunities to do deep research … because these are salient things that might attract political controversy.”
Kosar, who detailed in a 2015 article how congressional dysfunction led him to quit his CRS job, said the agency’s timidity coincides with the internet.
When internet use became more common about 20 years ago, CRS reports went from being hard copies that were read by a small handful of Hill staffers to widely spread stories in outlets like The New York Times, he wrote in a blog post last month.
“The arrival of the World Wide Web, smartphones, and the bitterly contentious environment on the Hill, as I described elsewhere, slammed CRS,” he wrote. “The once insular agency found its staff being trashed by legislators, media, and bloggers. All for doing their jobs.”
In response, Kosar said CRS tried to make its work less visible and therefore less vulnerable to public derision. While neutrality and invisibility help the agency avoid controversy, it is “soul-crushing” to staff, he said.
Wyatt agreed the pressure to avoid controversy adds some stress to her daily work.
“I’m not the only person who feels this general way about CRS’s approach to some controversial topics, but there hasn’t been a lot of coordinated or vocal discussion,” she said.
In its latest annual report, CRS touts abundant new and updated products but does not go into detail about how it is adapting to the heightened partisan nature of Congress or the challenges it faces as senior analysts retire.
Kosar said he does not see the situation improving any time soon.
“There’s little evidence that Congress itself is becoming less polarized, there’s little evidence that the media cloud around Congress is becoming less polarized and there’s no sign whatsoever that the agency’s leadership is willing to stand up and have the backs of CRS analysts when they write about controversial issues,” he said.
Kosar said Congress’ move to open CRS reports to the public will ameliorate years of “obstruction.”
“Now the public — not just lobbyists will be able to learn about government programs and policies through these invaluable nonpartisan reports,” he said in an email.