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A new era for CRS? Lawmakers propose more data, less ‘bicep work’

Modernization subpanel continues to focus on the embattled support agency

Rep. Stephanie Bice holds up the printed Constitution Annotated, which would be eliminated under her proposed legislation in favor of the online version.
Rep. Stephanie Bice holds up the printed Constitution Annotated, which would be eliminated under her proposed legislation in favor of the online version. (Screenshot/Courtesy the House Administration Subcommittee on Modernization)

Few people want to lug around the behemoth print version of the Constitution Annotated, but rules are rules, and every 10 years, the Congressional Research Service is statutorily required to issue a new edition.

That is, unless the House Administration Modernization Subcommittee has its way.

“CONAN, as this massive tome is known, has been available online since 2019. The digital version is regularly updated and has gotten millions of views since its inception,” said Oklahoma Republican Rep. Stephanie Bice, chair of the subcommittee, struggling to lift the hardbound book at a Wednesday hearing. 

Not only is the digital version more viewed and more easily updated, but it could save money. The 2012 version of CONAN cost taxpayers around $1 million to produce, according to estimates from CRS and the Government Publishing Office, which is part of the impetus for a Bice proposal that would eliminate the print mandate.

“It’s bicep work. It’s an arms day,” joked Washington Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer, the subcommittee’s ranking member, as Bice passed him the book. In customary Modernization fashion, the pair spoke from a large table in the committee’s Longworth House Office Building meeting room, seated there along with their witnesses, instead of staring down at them from a dais. 

Kilmer is the former chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, or ModCom, which disbanded at the end of the 117th Congress but left more than 200 recommendations to improve the legislative branch. Implementing those recommendations is now the work of the subcommittee.

Shifting away from the print requirement — a relic of CRS’ decades-old authorizing statute, which Bice said hasn’t been seriously modified in 50 years — is one of several ideas to revamp the agency sometimes known as Congress’ think tank. Most of those discussed Wednesday are based at least in part on ModCom recommendations.

Leadership change

The hearing came after a tumultuous year for CRS. Reports of poor leadership, low morale, high turnover and lagging diversity led to the June resignation of its director, Mary B. Mazanec, after an earlier Modernization Subcommittee hearing put a spotlight on those problems.

Mazanec’s interim replacement, Robert Newlen, said he’s set out to improve the agency since his appointment. One of the first steps he took was setting up a series of focus groups with CRS employees, where he asked: “What is it that I can do in the short time I’m here to help you better serve Congress?” He described a series of simple changes, like upgrading staff Zoom accounts to prevent meetings from being cut off after 40 minutes.

The optimistic tone of the hearing contrasted with the more contentious one with his predecessor last year.

“I appreciate the work you’re doing over at CRS. It’s a spectacular resource,” said House Administration Chairman Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis.

The subcommittee also heard testimony on a second CRS-related proposal that would grant it more access to information from the executive branch, regulatory agencies and commissions, on par with access already granted to the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office.

A key function of CRS is dealing with inquiries from members, staff and committees and returning answers and analysis, some of which is based on data from federal agencies. But in part because of outdated statutory language, the agency has sometimes struggled to extract what it needs from the executive branch, Newlen said.

Some agencies have asked CRS to file Freedom of Information Act requests, he said, while others don’t respond at all or flat out refuse.

“This sort of agency resistance can delay CRS’ response to congressional clients and impede the service’s ability to inform and advise Congress,” said Newlen.

Institutional barriers like those were highlighted in ModCom’s final report in 2022. And the problem is not confined to CRS, according to Kilmer, who sees a broader need to share and access data.

Kilmer introduced a concurrent resolution that would establish a Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking “to review, analyze, and make recommendations with respect to promoting the use of federal data for evidence-building and evidence-based policymaking,” according to the resolution text.

He envisions a 12-person panel appointed by House and Senate leadership. It would include academics, former members of Congress, senior staffers and representatives from legislative branch support agencies. 

“Establishing this commission is a low-cost, rapid mechanism for addressing the question of how Congress can establish capacity, process, and procedure to better use data and evidence,” said Nicholas Hart, president and CEO of the Data Foundation.

Hart testified at the hearing alongside Matthew Glassman, senior fellow at Georgetown’s Government Affairs Institute, and Elise Bean, director of the Washington office of the Carl Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy. 

The idea of an evidence-based commission has some historical precedent, Kilmer said. Former Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, teamed up with Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, to establish a similar evidence-based commission with a focus on the executive branch. That legislation passed both the House and Senate and was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2016. And recommendations produced by that commission were incorporated into a 2019 piece of legislation signed by President Donald Trump.

“The problems we face as a nation are hard, but the idea that we will deliver more for our constituents and for our country with a common set of facts does not have to be hard,” Kilmer said.

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