(The following is an article compiled by Cory V. Langley, a communications specialist in the Congressional Research Service, that is featured in the May – June 2014 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM, now available for download here. You can also view the archives of the Library’s former publication from 1993 to 2011.
The centennial of the Congressional Research Service is a time to look back on its history and ahead to serving a 21st-century Congress.
When the Legislative Reference Service (LRS) was established in the Library of Congress in 1914, the small staff provided what its name conveyed—reference information to assist Members of Congress in their legislative work. Over 100 years, LRS evolved into today’s Congressional Research Service (CRS), a staff of 600 that exclusively provides Congress with nonpartisan policy analysis.
CRS is known for its reports, but what makes CRS is its people—analysts, attorneys, information professionals, and management and infrastructure support staff. These staff members carry out services in support of the modern mission: to provide objective, authoritative and confidential legislative research and analysis, thereby contributing to an informed national legislature.
“The success of CRS in fulfilling its statutory mission is a direct result of diligent professional staff, entrusted with the critical task of researching issues and analyzing information and data for elected officials,” said CRS Director Mary B. Mazanec.
Tailored, Personalized Service To Congress
CRS staff members respond to specific congressional questions in a variety of ways: in person, by telephone and in confidential memoranda. CRS staff members also assist Members of Congress and their staffs in preparing for hearings and provide expert testimony.
For example, the House Armed Services Committee last year invited Catherine Dale, a specialist in international security, to testify about the transition in Afghanistan—the formal handover of security responsibility from coalition to Afghan forces. “My role was to frame key oversight issues before other witnesses presented their proposed prescriptions,” said Dale. “Afterward, members and staff from both sides of the aisle sought me out for assistance.”
Reports on Major Policy Issues
CRS analysts, legislative attorneys and information professionals prepare reports on legislative issues. CRS’s analyses are available to all of Congress on an exclusive CRS website, where nearly 10,000 reports are searchable and organized by issue area.
“I issued a report within 24 hours of a tragic wildfire incident,” said Kelsi Bracmort, a specialist in agricultural conservation and natural-resources policy. “The short report succinctly described one facet of wildfire management, directed the reader to other related reports, and, most importantly, immediately let Congress know that there was a CRS policy specialist available to discuss this matter in depth.”
Assistance Throughoutthe Legislative Process
Throughout all stages of the legislative process, CRS works with committees, members and congressional staff to identify and clarify policy problems, assess the implications of proposed policy alternatives and provide timely responses to meet immediate and long-term needs.
“Congress relies on CRS’s legal expertise in many stages of the legislative process,” said Julia Taylor, who heads the American Law Consulting Section. “Before a bill is introduced, we’re often asked to research legal definitions for terms or conduct a survey of state laws to see how an issue has been handled across the country. As the bill moves through Congress, we research issues relating to the potential impact of the new law. Congressional staff may ask about the nature of recent litigation. They may also ask for research related to floor statements the member would like to make when the bill comes up for debate.”
Process and Procedures
CRS assists lawmakers and their staffs in understanding the formal and informal rules, practices and precedents of the House and Senate and how they might be employed in the legislative process.
“I’m part of a group that supports Congress on legislative rules and procedures,” said Valerie Heitshusen, analyst on Congress and the legislative process. “We consult on legislative strategy, analyze current and historical procedural practices, and explain implications of potential procedural options. Examples include helping senators assess proposed changes in the practice of filibusters, serving as a procedural resource in committee markups, and identifying the range of opportunities Members of Congress may have to offer amendments to pending legislation.”
In its first century, CRS has acquired a store of knowledge and experience that Congress can rely on. At the present time, when there is an overwhelming amount of information readily available, it is even more essential that Members of Congress have access to issue experts in CRS who can assist them by gathering, analyzing and summarizing the most pertinent information.
“We work in an environment in which many entities are competing for members’ time and attention,” said Director Mazanec, who is involving the entire staff in developing formats and delivery methods for CRS products and services that are most helpful to the 21st-century Congress.
“CRS will stay true to its values and align with Congress’s needs. We want Congress to turn to CRS first when it is in need of research and analysis to support its deliberations and legislative decisions.”
“CRS will continue to provide Congress with the independent scholarship required as it embarks upon its second century of distinguished service,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.
CRS at 100: A Timeline
On July 16, President Woodrow Wilson approves the fiscal 1915 appropriations bill, which includes $25,000 for legislative reference. Two days later, Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam establishes the Legislative Reference Service (LRS) by administrative order.
LRS responds to a congressional directive to publish a digest of public bills and takes over the production of the “Constitution Annotated,” a compilation of constitutional case law, which the Library began publishing in 1913.
World War II leads to rapid growth in LRS, with every senator and a majority of U.S representatives turning to LRS for reference assistance.
The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 calls for an immediate increase in the size and scope of LRS to meet the information needs of Congress in the post-war era.
LRS assists Congress on issues such as the Cold War, civil rights, social security, and science and technology. The press calls LRS “Congress’s right arm.”
The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 transforms and renames LRS. The newly restructured Congressional Research Service (CRS) becomes Congress’s own think tank for objective, nonpartisan policy analysis.
CRS establishes the La Follette Reading Room in the Library’s new James Madison Memorial Building to honor Senators Robert M. La Follette Sr. and his son, Robert, for their support for a congressional research department in the Library of Congress.
CRS holds its first Federal Law Update briefings on current legal topics of interest to Congress, which continue to the present day with new programs and workshops on policy issues.
CRS launches CRS.gov, a website for Congress. At Congress’s request, the Library develops an online public legislative information-tracking system known as THOMAS. CRS develops the Legislative Information System (LIS) to serve the legislative branch.
The Library of Congress, in collaboration with the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and the Government Printing Office, launches Congress.gov, an improved website that will replace the legacy legislative tracking systems for Congress and the public.
The Library of Congress, the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration and the Government Printing Office launch the “Constitution Annotated,” a new app and web publication that make the printed version of constitutional case law accessible for free on a computer or mobile device.
CRS celebrates its centennial. CRS continues to enhance its staff capabilities, diversify its research products and streamline its website.