Congress's hidden brain
An inside look at the Congressional Research Service.
Happy New Year and welcome back to Attentive Public! The past month in American politics was… well, intense. From a domestic terrorist attack on the U. S. Capitol, to the inauguration of a new president, to all the procedural odds and ends in between, there has been a lot to keep up with.
Living through historical anomalies is already stressful, but the lack of clear, honest, and nonpartisan information about political events and policies makes things all the more uncertain. Fortunately, these issues (and thousands more) have already been analyzed by one of Congress’s best-kept secrets: the Congressional Research Service (CRS).
CRS is a nonpartisan office of policy and procedural experts. Members of Congress and their staff use CRS as a resource for free policy analysis, historical questions, and legislative clarification. CRS experts write short memos on these subjects at a high school reading level. It’s housed under the Library of Congress, and funded by legislative branch appropriations.
Usually, the process goes: Members of Congress reach out to CRS with a question. CRS experts will then develop a confidential, nonpartisan memo for them. Legislators can ask CRS about nearly anything—from the constitutionality of impeachment, to state water-sharing agreements, to the history of a congressional procedure.
Until recently, CRS memos were confidential and private (and when members ask for a new memo, these requests still are). However, a few years ago a group of transparency advocates worked to make past memos available to the general public on EveryCRSReport.com. This post will tell you how to find memos written by CRS experts, and below that I highlight a few memos relevant to current events.
Head to EveryCRSReport.com. Below is a screen grab of the homepage. At the top, you can see the most recently published requests. As you’d expect, a lot of these are about COVID-19.
Use the search bar to type the topic you’re interested in or browse by policy topic. We’ll use the minimum wage as an example.
As you type, titles of reports will auto-populate. Let’s take a look at the results to get an idea of the type of reports available. I am limiting results to reports published in the last four years.
As you can tell by the results, CRS really does cover everything. The first result covers a specific piece of legislation to raise the minimum wage. The second result provides an overview of state ballot measures to raise the minimum wage, and so on. Each report has its own individual report number, making them easy to cite and trace.
Let’s take a look at the fourth entry: “The Federal Minimum Wage: In Brief.”
Below is the landing page of that report. The date at the top covers the time the report was created to the time it was last updated. The main body provides a brief overview of the report. As you can see, CRS experts are truly nonpartisan. They offer facts, as well as an overview of competing policy opinions.
To the right is the button to download the report in PDF or EPUB version. Below that is a “Revision History.” When a member requests a report that has already been written, CRS experts will update the report with new information before sending it out. The revision history captures those changes.
After downloading the report (for free!), you can get to learning.
(You’ll note on the cover page that the author’s name is often redacted, instead just listing their area of specialty. Because EveryCRSReport is a third-party, nonprofit website hosting these reports, they keep the names private to comply with the aforementioned confidentiality agreement. However, when a member of Congress requests a memo, they work with the specialist directly. But now that this is in the public realm, EveryCRSReport keeps this info private.)
Past the cover page, there is an overview (the same as from the earlier landing page), the table of contents, and the rest of the reports. The table of contents below gives you an idea of the breadth even just this brief memo provides.
So yeah, CRS is pretty amazing. It’s easy to use, it’s free, and it’s official, high-quality information. Happy searching!
If you find yourself really enjoying these memos, make sure to let your Representative and Senator know! It’s important for members of Congress to have access to factual, nonpartisan information (arguably now more than ever!), yet CRS has faced a funding decline over the past few years.
And a few reports that might be particularly relevant right now…
The Budget Reconciliation Process: Stages of Consideration, Report R44058
The Impeachment and Trial of a Former President, Report LSB10565
The Senate Powersharing Agreement of the 107th Congress (2001-2003): Key Features, Report RS20785
Recall of Legislators and the Removal of Members of Congress from Office, Report RL30016
Federal Economic Development and COVID-19 Recovery: Issues and Policy Options, Report IN11587
Presidential Disability Under the Twenty-Fifth Amendment: Constitutional Provisions and Perspectives for Congress, Report R45394
Lastly—thanks to those who have submitted ideas to cover this year! If there’s anything in particular you’d like me to research and write about, let me know: