What Is the Congressional Research Service, and What Does It Do? (with Kevin Kosar)

By Kevin R. Kosar July 3, 2023

The topic of this episode is, “What is the Congressional Research Service, and what does it do?”

The guest of this show is me, Kevin Kosar.  I spent a little over a decade at the Congressional Research Service (CRS) working as a non-partisan analyst and as an acting section research manager. Subsequent to my time at the agency, I was one of the individuals who advocated that Congress make CRS reports available to the public and not just legislators. I’ve also written about CRS and the other legislative branch support agencies, like CBO and GAO.

But it would be weird for me to ask myself questions and then answer them, so I asked my AEI colleague, Jaehun Lee, to serve as my interlocutor.

Kevin Kosar:

Welcome to Understanding Congress, a podcast about the first branch of government. Congress is a notoriously complex institution and few Americans think well of it, but Congress is essential to our Republic. It’s a place where our pluralistic society is supposed to work out its differences and come to agreement about what our laws should be. And that is why we are here to discuss our national legislature and to think about ways to upgrade it so it can better serve our nation.

I’m your host Kevin Kosar and I’m a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC.

All right, Jaehun, take it away.

Jaehun Lee:

Let’s start simple. What is the Congressional Research Service?

Kevin Kosar:

The Congressional Research Service is the rare government agency where its name actually accurately describes what it does. It is a research and reference service for Congress. Congress is its lone client. CRS is an agency in inside the Library of Congress. So it is a federal government agency—not some sort of private sector research outfit—and its job is to support Congress and to do so by providing nonpartisan research, analysis, legal opinions, and just about anything else that Congress may require.

You think about Congress, it’s comprised of regular Americans—anybody can run for Congress and anybody can become a congressional staffer. And when those people come to Washington DC, they’re suddenly saddled with this immense responsibility of governing: they have to make laws, they have to oversee executive agencies, and they have to respond to lots of constituents. They have to receive interest groups who come through their doors, making demands of them related to policy and spending.

Nobody who enters that position is fully equipped to handle it. We’re all amateurs when it comes to governing, and CRS plays a critical role in helping those folks govern. So if you’re a brand new legislator and you’re trying to figure out, “How do I introduce my first bill? Where do I even get this thing drafted?” You can call up CRS and they’ll say, “Okay, here are the steps. Here’s how you should reach out to legislative counsel within the chamber who can actually put your ideas into a template and grind it through.” They can help you on these sort of things. They can teach you the basics of legislative procedure: what’s a filibuster? How does a congressional budget process work?

They also are a giant resource for facts and nonpartisan—and this is key, nonpartisan—analysis. Everybody in DC in the private sector to one degree or another has an angle, a perspective. Often, especially when you’re talking about interest groups or lobbyists, they have specific policy goals and they are going to make arguments to persuade you to pick their policies or to support them. CRS doesn’t do that. It doesn’t tell Congress, “Here’s the policy you should pick.” Instead, it says, “There are your options. All of them have benefits and costs. Here are the benefits. Here are the costs. Now you Congress decide.” That makes them a special resource, and that’s why they are so trusted on Capitol Hill because they don’t have a skin in the game. They’re not pushing an agenda.

What do they do? They run training classes to teach you how to be a legislator or staffer. They’ll look up facts and figures for you. They write short reports and primers that explain the history of various policies and programs so you as a legislator can understand why these programs and policies exist and how they have evolved over time. They do so much for Congress.

Jaehun Lee:

How many people work at CRS, and how are they different from staff working in the House and Senate?

Kevin Kosar:

Presently, a little over 600 people work at CRS, so that makes it a sizable think tank and reference service within the library. But I should put that number within context. About 40 years ago—during the 1980s—CRS had over 900 employees. It had a lot more people power than it does today.

How are they different from staff working in the House and the Senate? CRS staff are civil servants, meaning they are hired on nonpartisan objective criteria—the so-called KSAOs: knowledge, skills, abilities and other characteristics. It’s a rigorous process with lots of stages where—if you want to get a job at CRS—you have to show you got the education credentials, the research chops, and the various skills that you need to do the job. One of the things that helped get me a job at CRS was the fact that I had spent four or five years reading congressional documents in the course of producing my dissertation, so I was very familiar with the committee processes for doing oversight and policymaking and the larger legislative arena and how it operates.

That’s different from Capitol Hill. If you want to work for a member of the House, member of the Senate, one of the committees, you’re going to be picked with some consideration of your partisanship. That doesn’t happen at CRS. Not at all. Not ever. People who work on Capitol Hill, their jobs are very diverse in nature. You have some people who are just devoted to constituent service, whose job is not really to think about policy. You have people who are devoted to working on press and public communications. You have folks who do a whole lot of different things. CRS is a lot more narrow-banded; you primarily have people with academic expertise-type training and experience. And of course, you have the critical core of the reference librarians, knowledge services folks. That’s what comprises the agency.

Jaehun Lee:

Why did Congress create CRS?

Kevin Kosar:

The story starts at least a hundred years ago—around 1914. To a degree, what we had going on was this recognition of an aspiration of the Enlightenment, which had happened centuries before, which is that reason, facts, analyses should come to bear on governance. Now, we all know Congress is comprised of individuals representing diverse districts and states, and they are very much influenced by parochial interests—people back home—and they’re influenced and informed very much by interest groups.

CRS was created at a time when there was a broader effort to bring facts, analysis and reason into the legislative process. This got its start in Wisconsin and New York, where the legislatures there got the idea, ‘Maybe we should have some experts we can rely upon who can give us the information we need to give us the ability to make smarter decisions and make policy that works better.’ To a degree, that—making good policy that works and pleases voters—can help with the eternal goal of a politician getting re-elected. So that’s why CRS was created in 1914. It was created as the Legislative Reference Service.

To a degree, it built off infrastructure that had been created back in 1800. I mean, why did we have a Library of Congress? Answer: there was this idea amongst the Founders that it would be good if we looked at some books, studied some facts and figures before we legislate, and so that’s why the Library of Congress was created initially. But 1914 was a moment where they said, “We should have people in there who are devoted to producing materials that are useful to legislators—such as compilations of statutes about particular topic (e.g., maybe tariffs or something related to agriculture) and having them on hand—and these people should be available at the beckon call of the legislature as needed. That was the original Legislative Reference Service.

Fast forward to 1946, Congress was in the process of clawing back power. The executive branch had grown massively during the Great Depression, New Deal, and World War II. Congress in the mid-40s said, “We have to reassert ourselves as the First Branch.” And they did a whole lot of things, but one of which was they beefed up the Legislative Reference Service and started requiring it to have real policy nerds on staff in particular issue areas. During the early 70s, the ballooning of the executive branch prompted Congress to reassert itself and it took the LRS, turned it into the CRS, and did a whole bunch of other things to reassert itself.

So the CRS we have today was very much created at a time when Congress felt like the executive branch had a whole lot of expertise to draw upon—all the people who work in the many agencies over there—and Congress didn’t. Knowledge is power, and—if you’re the legislative branch—you don’t want to have to rely on the executive branch for all the information. That puts you in a weak position. So Congress invested in itself by bulking up the CRS and flooding its ranks with experts.

Jaehun Lee:

You mentioned during the introduction that there are other legislative branch support agencies. How is CRS like or different from the GAO and the CBO?

Kevin Kosar:

They are alike insofar as they are agencies created to serve Congress. They are staffed with nonpartisan people, who have expertise of one sort or another that is considered of use in the legislative process. GAO was created a century ago and began as an agency that basically followed the money. They were the auditors who were supposed to tabulate where all the dollars being sent out the door by the executive branch went. Later, their mission was expanded to do other stuff. They had to do legal opinions related to the spending of money. They hear bid protests, where if you are a contractor bidding on some government project and think that you got unfairly treated in the course of it, you can file a bid protest and GAO has to look at that. GAO also got involved in doing program evaluation, looking at whether various policies worked, and they have investigative authority, which means they can go into agencies and get their hands on data and other materials.

CBO was created in the early 70s, at that same time when Congress was reasserting itself, pushing back against a president who had thrown so much weight around in terms of budgeting and spending. CBO has a statutory mission to support Congress in various ways. They have to produce various estimates and reports related to federal spending and the economy and the revenues coming in. They also score bills reported from committee—giving them a price tag on the estimated costs and estimated revenues that might be coming in.

CRS meanwhile is a bit different. They do a lot of stuff as I mentioned earlier: running the classes teaching legislators, acting as a daily reference desk, etc. If you have a question about, for example, spending on a particular defense program, you—a congressional staffer or a legislator—are not going to call CBO or the GAO to ask because those agencies are really not designed to take lots of requests from individual legislators and staff. Instead, you call up CRS, because CRS is your help desk.

GAO does it sometimes, but CRS often will let its people work with a committee or member of Congress for an extended period of time. In the old days, they used to physically detail people over to committees. But these days, it’s more along the lines of if a committee is really looking into something—like how to help the ailing US Postal Service—that committee can keep asking you questions and asking you to come over and help them, gobble up your bandwidth, and you—the analyst—will just do that. That’s neat because it allows Congress when it has various needs to just call upon CRS to flow in.

Jaehun Lee:

What are the challenges facing CRS today?

Kevin Kosar:

One of the challenges CRS faces is an eternal one: the Hill is a very political place and CRS is a very factual, analytical place. And we know in politics facts and analysis can often offend people because it challenges their rhetoric, or a policy or position they have staked out. I’ve found quotes going back into the 50s, where members of Congress were lamenting the fact that the agency—then the Legislative Reference Service—was hesitant to speak clearly about the facts because they didn’t want to face blowback. Mind you, the agency is wholly funded by Congress, so obviously you don’t want them to cut your budget. So there’s this eternal hesitancy to speak too clearly for fear of getting political blowback.

Another big-picture challenge for the agency is that the 70s—when CRS was relaunched—was a time of very strong congressional committees. Committees dominated the policymaking and oversight process, and CRS was set up initially to primarily serve committees. In the 70s, there used to exist this exercise where—as a new Congress was coming in—CRS was expected to put before Congress a list of the most important policy priorities that Congress should attend to. That just doesn’t happen today. So we’ve evolved to an institution—a Senate, a House, and a Congress collectively that’s much less committee driven and much more top-down led by the Speaker and majority leader and their minority counterparts.

And it’s a much more partisan, polarized environment. It’s a lot more transparent environment. It’s a lot more contentious environment.

And so CRS can sometimes end up as collateral damage when party conflict gets intense. They need to find their way between wanting to do the important stuff of serving the committees, but realizing that in many cases committees are not leaning heavily upon them and going to other sources of information. As a result, so much CRS workflow today is driven by individual legislators. That’s just a different model than what’s conceived in the early 70s. So that’s tricky.

I think the digital revolution threw the agency a real curve ball. When I started there in 2003, the internet was still pretty young. Cell phones were still pretty primitive, and the agency at the time couldn’t see around the corner—let’s be honest, a lot of people couldn’t see around the corner. And they were very anchored on the old way of, “Let’s stick with doing white papers and Congress can physically come over and get copies of our white papers, or we can send them there to Congress through interoffice mail.” Then, the digital revolution happens and everything changes. A 30-page white paper doesn’t look good on a Blackberry or on a brand new spanking iPhone. So it’s a lot figuring out how to be that nonpartisan reference and research service in the 21st century, adapting to the changing technologies and the expectation of a faster news cycle, faster responsiveness, trying to get by with fewer employees but escalating demands from Congress. It’s a lot for the agency to tackle.

Jaehun Lee:

What does the future look like for CRS?

Kevin Kosar:

Certainly, to a degree, it looks like the past. CRS serves a really unique niche. Again, they are the help desk, the trainers, the nonpartisan folks that any congressional staffer can call up and get help from. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out on the street or at a party or some parent gathering, and I mentioned that I used to work at CRS and a former staffer who I’m talking to is like, “Oh my God, you did? CRS saved me so many times.” What did they mean by that? What they meant was that their boss dropped a policy question or a political question in their lap that they had no clue what the answer was, and they went to CRS and found an expert who was able to bone them up on the basics very quickly so that they could do their job and not get in trouble with their boss.

I don’t think that’s going to change. Our legislature is always going to be an amateur legislature. There’s always going to be questions, and they’re always going to need experts that they can trust, people who they know don’t have a skin in the game and who are not trying to manipulate them. So that’ll stay the same.

What’s going to change? Certainly the ongoing internet revolution. Certainly the structure of Congress, whether it continues to be heavily a leadership driven enterprise, whether it continues to be intensely polarized—CRS has to be responsive to that environment. It has to deal with that operating context. What’s going to happen with greater technological developments like AI? We’re early on in AI and already seeing signs that AI can produce primer type materials, and that prompts the question of, “Is that going to be taken away from CRS analysts?” You might just have AI machines writing short primer reports. Is that the future? Does that mean CRS’s mission will shift? I don’t know.

I’d also say that as one last factor—that’s kind of an unknown—is, “How is the agency going to compete for legislators’ attention and staff attention in the 21st century?” Again, CRS has the great advantage of being non-partisan and wholly funded by Congress. Nothing else out there has that, but in 1970—when CRS started—there were just a few think tanks in town and only a modest number of organizations who were doing analytical work. Now, any staffer can Google and find all sorts of information and analysis on a whole range of topics. There’s competition out there to supply Congress with information and analysis, and the question is this, “Can CRS find its niche and not lose market share to the private sector?” We’ll see.

Jaehun Lee:

All right, Kevin. Thank you for telling us what the Congressional Research Service is and what it does.

Kevin Kosar:

And Jaehun, thank you for sitting in for me.

Thank you for listening to Understanding Congress, a podcast of the American Enterprise Institute. This program was produced by Jaehun Lee and hosted by Kevin Kosar. You can subscribe to Understanding Congress via Stitcher, iTunes, Google Podcast, and TuneIn. We hope you’ll share this podcast with others and tell us what you think about it by posting your thoughts and questions on Twitter and tagging @AEI. Once again, thank you for listening and have a great day.


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