Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Congressional Research Service - Getting Our Monies Worth

I think Congressional Research Service (CRS) first came to my attention while I was at Library School.  I have since found many opportunities to tell others about it.  I find it especially useful when I teach specialized research classes. For example, in recent Law and Terrorism and Genetics and the Law classes, students found reports that were both on point and unique.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  The Library of Congress website describes CRS as a service “exclusively for the United States Congress, providing policy and legal analysis to committees and Members of both the House and Senate, regardless of party affiliation.”  It falls within the ambit of the Library of Congress and provides background research for every stage of the legislative process.

Signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914, CRS was originally called the Legislative Reference Service, and was renamed Congressional Research Service in 1970. Today, CRS purports to examine issues from a variety of (disinterested) perspectives. Its final work product appears as reports on policy issues, confidential memoranda, seminars, workshops, congressional testimony and responses to individual inquiries.

There are five CRS research divisions: American Law; Domestic Social Policy; Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade; Government and Finance; and Resources, Sciences and Industry.  All of these divisions have further breakdowns which are listed on their respective websites. The reports we found for our Law and Terrorism class came under the foreign affairs rubric, the foreign policy management and global issues subset. A report is written by a subject specialist and will typically be rich in the background of the issue under consideration, including differing views and the applicable legal framework.  As you can see, this kind of material can be a treasure trove for a researcher.

I want to hark back to the description of CRS from the Library of Congress website quoted above, specifically where it says that CRS is a service “exclusively” for Congress.  Oddly, although this service is paid for by the taxpayer, its reports are not available to the taxpayer.  We here at Western New England University School of Law have great access through our paid subscription to the ProQuest Congressional database. Others not so lucky can use resources like Open CRS.  The CRS argument for limiting access to its reports, argued in seven pages by the CRS Director in April 2007, was posted by the Federation of American Scientists. It’s slow reading and ultimately not persuasive to this blogger – why don’t all of those arguments apply equally to the paid access we have through the aforementioned ProQuest Congressional database?

Again oddly enough, between the time I started this post and the time I am concluding, a colleague brought to my attention H. Res. 727 introduced in July 2012, and a recent (like today) Law Librarian Blog post which proposes open access to CRS Reports.  If this sounds like a good idea to you, make your support known to your representatives.

Concluding on a practical note, CRS has more than 600 employees working in Washington, D.C., with more than half that number (450) working as policy analysts, attorneys and information professionals.  If this sounds like a career you might find interesting, read more about CRS career opportunities.

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