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At Congressional Research Service, A Long History of Pointed Questions

Thomas L. Hungerford, a seven-year veteran analyst with the fiercely nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, has written countless reports for members of Congress about the economic effects of various tax policy proposals.

He works pretty much as his 500 analyst colleagues at the CRS do, churning out studies and updates that seek to give members an intellectual and informational framework for the policy decisions they debate in the House and Senate.

Though treasured by members, staff and all manner of policy experts in and around Capitol Hill, the work product of Congress’ in-house “think tank” isn’t always a dry, just-the-facts-ma’am recitation of academic literature. CRS analysts can and will step out of the shadows and deliver conclusions based on their considerable expertise and research.

The problem for Hungerford and his fellow analysts comes when those conclusions inflame, rather than just inform, the debate. What’s more, the institutional policies that the CRS employs to protect its staff analysts from controversy aren’t always clear or helpful.

That complicates the agency’s relationship with Congress, which has come to expect certain results from its requests for reports.

“No one asks for anything from CRS without knowing what the answer is,” said Ike Brannon of the American Action Forum. He was previously the chief economist for the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the principal economic adviser for Senate Finance ranking member Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah.

Hungerford, in his most recent report, wanted to answer a single question that he knew would continue to divide Democrats and Republicans as the fiscal cliff comes nearer: Was there an association between top tax rates and economic growth?

He found no association, a conclusion that went against conservative economic theory and bolstered the mainstream Democratic position.

That conclusion didn’t go unnoticed when his report was published in September. Congressional Republicans called foul on the findings, which they said were biased and methodologically flawed. When the CRS removed the report from its internal website in mid-October, Democrats accused the agency of caving to political pressure and Republicans of censoring results they did not like.

The episode made national news, but it’s just the most recent example of how the agency’s guidelines for analysts — or lack thereof — can lead to confusion, partisan tensions and, perhaps most damning, doubts about objectivity.

The controversy also reveals larger internal issues at the agency that have left not just Hungerford but others before him vulnerable to scrutiny.

The uncertainty goes back to the 1995 rise of Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who pledged to slash spending on congressional research agencies and eliminate one such agency entirely: the Office of Technology Assessment.

Fearing a similar demise and the loss of valuable resources, management decided to “take a step back,” according to former CRS attorney Daniel Schuman.

Schuman said CRS analysts were counseled to avoid coming to firm conclusions and serve more as an aggregator of existing research.

“Realizing the danger of engaging in pure analysis, [management] tried to push everyone to not just be even-handed but to engage more in a survey of what people think as opposed to an analysis of what the options are,” said Schuman, now policy counsel at the Sunlight Foundation.

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