During orientation in September, I was enchanted to learn about the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Created by Congress with the idea that decisions should be made based on reliable information, this group works exclusively for Congress and is housed on Capitol Hill in the nearby Library of Congress. CRS is strictly non-partisan and confidential, so they will provide information for members and staff of both the House and the Senate from personal offices or from committees. The confidentiality extends even to if one staff member calls up and asks a question that has already been asked by another staff member in the same office, the CRS contact won’t mention the redundancy.
As part of orientation, the combined group of Congressional and Executive Branch Fellows received a half day introduction to CRS, but then since the Congressionals were going to be working with CRS much more closely, we got an additional full day of training. I remember particularly that we had lunch with some of analysts, and my table cheerfully pumped our analysts for information about particular Congressional offices since we had yet to go through Placement. One of the most interesting insights I received was that some Members of Congress obviously have a strong bias toward smart staffs. Former Senator Hilary Clinton and Former Congressman Sherrod Boehlert both fell into this category. The analyst said that if a staff member called up and was identified as being from one of these two offices, she could accurately assume that the staff member was smart. That assumption is apparently not universally true.
CRS is made up of analysts and attorneys, each of whom has a portfolio of issues which they learn and research in great depth. From my work computer, I can access a vast array of reports that CRS has created to provide general background on topics of interest. When I want to ask a more specific question or learn about a topic for which there is no appropriate report, I call the main number and make my selection from the menu. If I’m from a Congressional office and I need immediate assistance, I choose one selection. If I from a Congressional office and I don’t need immediate assistance, I press a different button. That immediate assistance is not an understatement. Whenever either chamber of Congress is in session, there will be some group of analysts who are available to answer questions, no matter how late at night. As one analyst explained to me, she once got a phone call from a Member of Congress who she’d been working with on an ongoing basis, and the caller needed an immediate answer. The analyst replied, “I can give you my five minute answer, or I can call you back with my one hour answer.” The Member responded, “Give me the five minute answer,” and the analyst answered based on the information in her own head. She then explained what she would look at if she could spend an hour to look up a few details, the Member decided that aspect of the question wasn’t important, and that solved the problem. Sometimes action in a hearing or on the Floor is moving so swiftly that indeed an hour is too long to get an answer.
In addition to topic areas, there are a number of CRS analysts who are specialists in Congress itself. Having received a half day crash course by CRS during Placement about how Congress works, I took the opportunity in November to take the two day Legislative Institute that CRS offers to staffers to go into more depth on Congressional procedures. Perhaps it is that I have little background to build on in this area, but I find that learning Congressional procedures from CRS analysts tends to feel like drinking from a fire hose. If I open up my brain its maximum bandwidth and maintain absolute focus, I can keep up with the information flow. At one point, I lost focus for a mere ten seconds or so, and by the time I checked back in, the man’s words sounded like, “term term jargon jargon jargon term term…” I enjoyed the challenge, but my brain got a really good workout.
The Legislative Institute was a wonderful experience, so I’ll share a few more stories about it. The staffers taking the course were separated into two groups, so that the Senate staff learned about unanimous consent, amendment trees, the Congressional Record, and procedures important in our lives, while the House staff learned their information. At the end of our first day, our group got to do an exercise as though we were committee members using Senate procedure to agree on rules for how our committee would work. We were divided up somewhat arbitrarily into a majority party and a minority party, but our seniorities were determined by how much experience we had on the Hill. Each party caucused, i.e. had a meeting, to decide on how we wanted to try to amend the draft committee rules that we had been given. We then met as the full committee and started to negotiate. I got the experience of being in on the minority side and having to use persuasion rather than superior numbers to get what we wanted. It was actually rather impressive how often the appeal to move forward in a spirit of bipartisanship resulted in members of the majority party voting our way. The CRS analyst who ran the exercise for us helped us translate our intentions into the appropriate language, which is NOT easy. Toward the end, we started stretching our limits, proposing some outrageous amendments just to see how that affected the dynamics and how many different rules we could try out. Our CRS analyst was obviously delighted with our enthusiasm.
One of the traits I’ve observed in many of the analysts is that they are amazing teachers. In my experience, the best teachers are adept at evaluating a student and then teaching material to exactly the level of the student’s comprehension. Often new or inexperienced teachers have only developed a single way of explaining a concept, and they are not able to adapt that explanation to simplify or to elevate the level based on the background of the audience. In contrast, at the beginning of a conversation with a CRS analyst, I will generally explain that I’m a AAAS Fellow whose previous job was as a chemistry professor. The analyst promptly ratchets up the level at which he or she is explaining and delivers information to me at exactly the right speed and complexity so I get the most complete understanding possible.
Here are some examples of the types of questions that I’ve asked: “How is a certain industry reacting to the new rules that limit emissions?” “How has the [insert name of federal program] received funding? “Can you give me a crash course on [insert issue.]” “Have you read [this paper], and if so, does it seem valid based on what else you know of the field?” “What cool things did you learn [on a certain topic] at the conference you were at last week?”
Sometimes the answer easily fits in an email. Sometimes a phone call is better since I can ask follow up questions to get a bit more depth. On several occasions, I have asked for briefings when I was trying to get up to speed on a new topic. In that case, one of the CRS analysts will come to my office, or I’ll go over to their office in the Library of Congress to get an intensive tutorial that gives me a broad knowledge of a topic. I did that last one this past week and had two analysts sit with me and walk me through the basic issues in forestry, an area that I’m starting to learn about. They spent an hour and a half stuffing my head with information, and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. I also nearly learned the hard way that the tunnel from the Library of Congress back to the Capitol Visitor’s Center closes at 4:20; I was the last person who sprinted through!
Also this past week, I set up a call with CRS on a different topic. It was mostly chasing down a loose end to be certain that there wasn’t anything important to be learned or done, but the analyst who contacted me suggested that the question was at the junction of multiple analysts’ areas of expertise, and he wanted to get the lot of them on the phone with me. Thus, I ended up on speaker phone with FOUR CRS analysts all working to answer the details of my question. One of my fellow Fellows recently commented that when you are a nerd in one area, it’s much easier to “nerd out” in a new area as well, and that’s what occurred in this conversation. My question happened to overlap with some material that I teach in my environmental chemistry course, so I continued to ask questions just because I was interested. The CRS folks have such an incredible depth of knowledge in their areas that they always seem to enjoy getting into the nitty gritty details, so they were obviously happy to help. Thus at one point, I asked a very specific and very technical question. I glanced up and realized that the guy who sits in front of me was looking at me with an expression akin to horror. I usually keep my nerdiness under wraps in the office, but I didn’t think it was that much of a secret. I said to my coworker, “Don’t look at me like that. I’m a nerd.” From the other end of the phone I got a chorus from the analysts of, “We love it! Be nerdy!”
Just one of the many reasons I love CRS.